A constant ache. Shooting or stabbing pain. Tingling, numbness or burning. No matter what form your foot pain takes, it hurts. But why does your foot hurt?
Your feet do a lot of work for you every day, so they could just be sore. But depending on where your pain is and the types of symptoms you’re experiencing, your foot pain could be something more.
Read on to learn about some of the most common underlying causes of foot pain, types of foot conditions that may be to blame, and what you can do to put the spring back in your step – including when to see a podiatrist, a doctor who specializes in foot and ankle issues.
Common causes of foot pain
Foot pain often stems from one of the following issues:
- Trauma – Injuries can be acute, coming on suddenly like an ankle sprain, foot fracture or an Achilles tendon rupture. Sometimes trauma from an injury – plus normal wear and tear from long-term, repetitive use – can lead to chronic conditions like tendonitis.
- Deformities – From genetics to the way we walk and the shoes we wear, there are several things that can lead to foot deformities such as bunions, hammertoes, claw toes and bone spurs.
- Diabetes – High blood sugar levels can cause nerve damage throughout the body, but most often in the feet and legs. High blood sugar can also lead to foot ulcers.
- Wearing ill-fitting shoes – Our footwear choices can have a big impact on our feet, depending on how they fit and distribute pressure.
- Viruses, fungi, bacteria or infections – Warts, athlete’s foot and fungal nail infections are all examples of infectious diseases that can lead to foot pain.
- Arthritis – Our feet and ankles have many joints – and all of them could be prone to developing arthritis. Arthritis can lead to daily pain for some, and be related to old injuries, bone spurs, normal wear and tear, and more.
Conditions that may have foot pain as a symptom
Those root causes can often lead to specific foot conditions, which can be characterized by specific symptoms and where the pain in your foot is located.
What does it mean when your toes hurt?
An ingrown toenail is a common condition – and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a toenail that has grown into the skin around it. Big toes are usually where ingrown toenails happen, but other toes can be affected, too.
The main symptom of an ingrown toenail is pain from the nail growing into the skin rather than over it. But it can also become swollen and red, and drain fluid, if it gets infected.
Oftentimes, an ingrown toenail can be treated at home by following a toe soaking routine. But if your toenail appears to be infected, the pain is increasing or severe, or the home routine doesn’t appear to be working after a couple days, make an appointment with a podiatrist. They may be able to remove the ingrown toenail during an office visit.
Bunions develop on the outside edge of the big toe. They look like a bony bump at the base of your toe joint. But the earliest signs of a bunion are often pain, tenderness, swelling or irritation around your big toe joint.
Bunion treatment often focuses on relieving bunion pain, starting with more conservative treatments. This may mean a combination of using pads or inserts to reduce pressure on the big toe, or taking certain over-the-counter medications to reduce swelling and ease discomfort. When conservative treatments stop working or bunions start to make daily activities difficult, bunion surgery can be an option.
Bunions develop over time, so if you’re experiencing pain or swelling in your big toe, don’t wait to get care. A podiatrist can help confirm whether you have the beginnings of a bunion.
If you’re already noticing a bump on the outside of your big toe, a podiatrist can work with you on a treatment plan to relieve pain and help slow down bunion growth.
A hammertoe is a toe that is bent downward at the middle joint, causing that joint to rise, which can lead to pain. Hammertoes are most common in second toes, and often appear alongside a bunion.
Beyond the look of a hammertoe, you may also notice that it’s hard to fit your feet comfortably into shoes, or that you’ve developed corns where it rubs against other toes or your shoes.
Treating a hammertoe has two parts: reducing pain and, if possible, correcting the bend. This may include a combination of new shoes, splints or wraps, and physical therapy.
If you think you’re getting a hammertoe, make an appointment with a podiatrist. They’ll be able to assess how advanced the condition is and work with you on a treatment plan.
Why does my big toe, foot, or ankle joint hurt?
Gout is a kind of inflammation caused by the buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint. How your body handles uric acid is partly genetic, but certain lifestyle factors such as your diet can also contribute.
A gout attack can happen in a variety of areas, but the big toe is most common. Symptoms involve swelling, tenderness and sharp pain, and can last anywhere from a couple days to several weeks. The affected area may also become very red.
Along with dietary and lifestyle changes, there are medications that can help prevent gout flare-ups. Gout attacks can also be soothed with a corticosteroid shot or a short-term medication prescription.
If you think you may be experiencing a gout attack, make an appointment with a podiatrist right away. Gout can be diagnosed during a flare-up when the joint is hot, swollen or painful, and lab tests find uric acid crystals within the affected joint.
Osteoarthritis is the most common kind of arthritis. It usually occurs in the foot and ankle when the cartilage that cushions bones at their joints breaks down.
Without cartilage in a joint, the movement of that joint can feel grating and stiff, and its range of motion may decrease. The joint can also swell and become painful.
In some cases, osteoarthritis can lead to hallux rigidus, an arthritis of the big toe that causes painful stiffness in the main toe joint. It can also lead to pain and inflammation in the ankle and be associated with tendonitis.
Osteoarthritis in the feet and ankles progresses over time. So early on, pain may come and go. But in later stages, the pain can become constant, making activity difficult. You can manage the pain through lifestyle changes, including the use of assistive devices like a cane or walker, and more supportive shoes.
When more conservative treatment options stop working like they used to or your daily life is increasingly impacted by pain, surgery may be an option. A podiatrist can help determine whether you’re experiencing arthritis, and work with you to create a treatment plan, if needed.
Why does the ball of my foot hurt?
Morton’s neuroma is a thickening of one of the nerves that runs between your toes. It can result from your toes being frequently squeezed together for too long.
Morton’s neuroma can cause a burning sensation or sharp pain in the ball of your foot, and discomfort or numbness in your toes. When you put weight on your foot, it may feel like there’s a small object underneath it.
Avoiding tight, high-heeled or pointed shoes is usually the first treatment step. In addition, anti-inflammatory medications and using ice can help bring down swelling. You should also give your feet plenty of rest to reduce pressure.
A podiatrist can officially diagnose whether you’re experiencing this condition or something else. So, if you’re regularly feeling that burning, shooting pain or numbness in your toes or ball of your foot, make an appointment.
Metatarsalgia (stone bruise)
Metatarsalgia is an inflammation in the ball of your foot that usually develops gradually. This condition can be especially common for those who participate in intense or high-impact sports or activities that require running or jumping.
For many, the pain usually worsens when barefoot or during activity, and eases when they’re at rest. You may feel burning, aching or sharp pain in the bottom of your foot, and this may be paired with sharp pain, tingling or numbness in your toes.
Rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medication can help reduce the pain from metatarsalgia in the short-term. In the long-term, lifestyle and activity modifications can help keep your symptoms under control.
Again, a podiatrist can provide an official diagnosis and recommend treatments tailored to your specific symptoms.
What causes pain in the heel of your foot?
Plantar fasciitis in one of the most common causes of heel pain. What is it? Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the plantar fascia, the ligament that connects your heel to your toes. This inflammation is usually the result of strain, which can be caused by anything that puts a lot of pressure on the arch of your foot.
The most common plantar fasciitis symptoms are sharp pain near your heels after exercising or standing up for long periods of time, and pain during the first few steps after sleeping or rest. As the foot and calf muscles loosen up, the pain may lessen.
Sturdy shoes with good arch support – whether built-in or from inserts – are one of the best ways to relieve plantar fasciitis pain. Doing stretches to keep the surrounding muscles flexible can help, too.
If pain begins to worsen and increasingly affects daily activities, a podiatrist may recommend a night splint or a cortisone injection. In more serious cases, surgery can be an option after other treatments have stopped working.
Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon, which connects your heel to your calf muscles, and helps make most foot movements possible. Achilles tendinitis is generally an overuse injury, and it can often be linked to an increase in activity frequency or intensity.
Symptoms of Achilles tendinitis can include pain above the heel or in the back of the leg during activity, and for a day or more after. You may experience pain and stiffness first thing in the morning, too.
Achilles tendinitis can usually be treated without surgery. Rest, along with modifying or stopping activities that make your pain worse can help prevent symptoms from becoming more severe. Also, warming up, stretching and strengthening your feet and ankles can significantly reduce pain and stiffness.
If you think you may be experiencing Achilles tendinitis, a podiatrist can make an official diagnosis and recommend additional treatment such as physical therapy, or wraps, braces or splints to reduce strain and help the tendon heal.
What about general ankle or foot pain?
If you have diabetes, high blood sugar levels can lead to nerve damage. This is known as diabetic neuropathy, and often affects the nerves in the feet and legs first.
Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy in the feet can include decreased sensitivity to temperature and pain. But it can also be signaled by increased sensitivity, including tingling, burning or sharp pain.
Once nerve damage has happened, it can’t be reversed. But careful management of blood sugar levels can prevent more from happening. Paying special attention to your feet is important as well, since any numbness resulting from nerve damage may make it harder to tell when your feet are injured or infected. One example of this are foot ulcers, which can be common for those with diabetic neuropathy.
A podiatrist can provide specialty foot and ankle care for diabetic neuropathy. They can also coordinate care with your primary care doctor who’s helping manage your diabetes and overall health care.
Sprains or fractures
If you’re experiencing pain following a sudden injury, a sprain or fracture of the foot and ankle may be the culprit. A sprain is a stretching or tearing of the ligaments that connect bones, and a fracture is a break in a bone.
More severe sprains or fractures come with higher levels of pain, swelling and bruising. You may be able to move a sprained foot or ankle more than a broken one.
One of the first signs of a sprain or fracture (besides pain) is swelling. This is your body's natural reaction to protecting and healing an injury.
Follow the RICE method for a foot or ankle injury to ease pain and swelling, as well as help prevent any further damage. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. If you're not sure how severe your injury is or you're experiencing intense pain, make an appointment with a podiatrist right away.
Take the next step toward foot pain relief
No matter the kind of foot pain you’re experiencing, don’t just try to push through it.
At a minimum, there are things you can do at home to heal certain conditions and relieve pain. But if you’re experiencing intense or increasing foot or ankle pain, your symptoms are impacting your daily activities, or you’re simply concerned something’s wrong, make an appointment with a podiatrist.
Podiatrists specialize in all things foot and ankle. Oftentimes, they can treat certain conditions in the office, as well as recommend products, stretches and exercises, pain medications and therapies to help relieve or heal pain. Many are also foot and ankle surgeons who can provide more advanced care when needed.
Tired of foot pain? It’s time to see a foot and ankle specialist.