Prevent damage from high heels, ill-fitting shoes, and improper care so you can put your best foot forward
By Dena Nishek
Your feet are exquisite—a network of 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles, 31 tendons, yards of nerves, and some 250,000 sweat glands, all working in perfect harmony to keep you supported, mobile, and balanced. But with all those parts in play, it's no wonder foot problems arise. Women are particularly susceptible to foot aches and pains, reporting about four times as many foot problems as men. The culprits: usually ill-fitting footwear, not to mention platform shoes and stiletto heels.
To keep your feet happy and healthy, it helps to know about the most common foot ailments and how to prevent them. First, however, you should know that feet aren't supposed to hurt. If you experience foot pain, it's a good idea to investigate because foot health mirrors general health. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a foot ailment can be the first sign of a serious medical condition, such as arthritis, diabetes, or a nerve or circulatory disorder. Most often, though, foot pain signifies inflammation, deformation caused by improperly fitting shoes, or an infection. If your foot hurts, start with a visit to your general practitioner; if necessary, he or she can refer you to a doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM) for a diagnosis.
Inflammatory Foot Problems
Robert Kornfeld, DPM, of the Kornfeld Center in Lake Success, New York, says that the number-one patient complaint he hears at his holistic and complementary podiatry practice is foot pain. Among his most common diagnoses are plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the ligament that supports the arch) and Achilles tendinitis (inflammation of the large tendon that attaches the calf muscles to the heel bone).
Plantar fasciitis pain is felt under the heel and the arch. People with high arches and people with flat feet are both prone to straining the plantar fascia, a broad band of fibrous tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot. An aggressive exercise program can also trigger this pain. Overpronation, or flat feet, is the most common cause of Achilles tendinitis. Overpronation occurs when the arch collapses during weight-bearing activity, including walking, or from insufficient stretching prior to exercise, both of which stress the tendon.
Incorporate stretching and meditation exercises, especially yoga, into your daily routine to help prevent foot strains. For these inflammatory conditions, Kornfeld uses injectable versions of homeopathic preparations. Kornfeld says they're superior to oral homeopathic regimes because "they work faster and more completely." Patients typically require a series of injections, usually once or twice weekly. For example, he often chooses Tendo allium cepa for tendinitis and Bryonia/stannum for inflamed and painful joints. "We support the injection treatments with herbal and nutritional medicines and sometimes dietary changes," he says. Combined, these therapies stimulate the immune system to better handle the inflammation. He also recommends the enzyme bromelain to speed tissue repair and heal inflammation, as well as herbs, such as turmeric (Curcuma domestica), boswellia (Boswellia serrata), and ginger (Zingiber officinale), to relieve pain and inflammation.
Kornfeld also counsels his patients to incorporate stretching and meditation exercises, especially yoga, into their daily routines to help prevent strains. Some people also find relief from plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis with supportive shoe inserts that reduce pressure, absorb shock, and support the arch to prevent overpronation.
Pain from structural deformities, such as bunions or hammertoes, is also a common foot complaint. A bunion, a prominent bump on the inside of the foot around the big toe joint, is actually a protruding bone that causes pain, stiffness, and in some cases limited mobility. Bunions are usually the result of shoes that don't fit quite right. High heels and shoes with narrow toe boxes force the big toe toward the little ones and foster bunion formation. Bunions can also be hereditary, so check your parents' feet. If the condition runs in your family, be extra careful to give your toes ample room in shoes.
Another structural problem is known as hammertoe, in which a toe contracts into a clawlike position. This can stem from muscle imbalances or ill-fitting footwear, including socks, other hosiery, and shoes that cramp the toes. "Any shoe that modifies the natural gait will have a negative effect on foot function and structure," Kornfeld says.
If you've noticed bunions or hammertoes developing, some simple changes can prevent the need for surgery. "The obvious thing is to modify the shoe gear," Kornfeld says. (See "Shoe Shopping Tips.") Kornfeld always discusses shoes with his patients, but changing shoe style is rarely enough. Foot pain is particularly difficult to control through shoes alone, he says, because no matter what shoes a person wears, "the foot is being slammed against the ground surface all day long." He prescribes homeopathic injections and nutritional therapies for most of his patients, and he advises them on dietary and lifestyle modifications as well. A diet rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids can help temper inflammation. He also suggests daily warm foot soaks. Warming the foot increases the demand for oxygen, hence circulation increases, and the body can replace or repair injured and damaged cells more quickly.
A Fungus Among Us
Not to be forgotten in the world of foot problems are the dreaded athlete's foot and nail fungus, caused by several types of fungi. Both are prevalent among people who frequent gym locker rooms, where these fungi spread easily. Once fungi contaminate the foot, they grow readily in the warm, moist environment of sweaty socks. For athlete's foot—characterized by red, itchy feet that crack and peel—Kornfeld recommends a topical garlic and tea-tree-oil blend. "Mix the juice of one garlic clove, five drops of tea tree oil, and five tablespoons of warm water together to form a solution," Kornfeld advises. Apply this twice daily.
Though topical remedies are effective for the occasional case of athlete's foot, toenail fungus is another matter. Infected nails turn yellow or brown and become thick. In time, the nail may either gradually crumble and fall off or become so thick that the affected toe is uncomfortable inside shoes. Alan Christianson, NMD, a naturopathic medical doctor in Scottsdale, Arizona, treats toenail fungus both systemically and topically. "It is a matter of repairing the body's overall levels of protective bacteria, getting those into a good range, and also addressing the fungus," he says. For topical treatment, he recommends tea tree oil, either straight or diluted with one part neutral carrier oil, such as almond or castor oil. "Apply just enough to cover the nail and the surrounding nail bed once daily after bathing," says Christianson. If you're sensitive to tea tree oil, he recommends diluting one part oregano oil in four parts carrier oil. You must use a topical treatment for nine to 12 months to kill all the spores and completely destroy the fungus while the nail regenerates, Christianson says.
Why are we susceptible to fungus? Kornfeld says diet plays a role. "The most common reason we see overgrowth of fungus in the body is because patients are consuming more carbohydrates than their bodies require, or they're consuming foods that are highly refined and highly toxic," Kornfeld says. This taxes the immune system and keeps it from dealing with other invaders, he says.
Take Care Of Your Tootsies
An antioxidant-rich diet with plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, stretching exercises, sensible shoes, and a little extra care can keep your feet happy and healthy. A daily foot massage with a natural oil, such as almond or coconut, also keeps feet moisturized and pampered. "Chronic dryness and skin irritation can invite some of those surface infections," says Christianson. Your daily care and affection can also help you notice anything wrong with your feet that needs attention.
Love 'em or hate 'em, you're stuck with those two little feet. It's best to treat them right so you can dance through life on the healthiest pair possible.
Dena Nishek, an avid barefoot dancer, writes about natural health and home topics.