They are the hardest working parts of our body, taking us the equivalent of three times around the world in a lifetime.
We use them to balance, to walk, to dance, to run, to jump and, if all this wasn’t enough, we also use them to express fashion fads in towering heels. Look down and say hello to your feet – one of the most neglected parts of your body.
Consider the statistics. According to the Australian Podiatry Association, an estimated 40 per cent of Australians will experience some form of foot complaint in their lifetime, ranging from relatively minor disorders, such as ingrown toenails, to severe feet deformities.
Given the workout we give our feet, this is not surprising. In some extreme instances, we subject them to torture, squeezing them into heels that seem to rise alarmingly higher with every fashion season.
Johanna Youner, a podiatric surgeon, warns that high heels can throw the spine out of alignment. She adds, “heels don’t offer sufficient arch support which can also cause knee pain”.
But before you consider throwing out your beloved pair of Jimmy Choos, Youner recommends simply trying to “give the heels a rest and opt for flats as much as possible”.
“It’s unrealistic to advise women to not wear heels at all, as they are such an ingrained fashion item,” says Youner.
“But if you want to get to old age without foot pain and postural problems, it’s probably a good idea to keep stilettos (and other poorly fitting shoes) in the wardrobe as much as you can, and only bring them out on special occasions when you won’t be walking around too much.”
A perfect fit for healthy feet
Unfortunately, even the most sensible shoes can cause foot problems if they’re not properly fitted.
“The best shoes are well-fitted, have a firm sole, are well-cushioned with a stiff heel counter that is strong and supportive, while the front of the shoe should be flexible,” explains Brenden Brown from the Australasian Podiatry Council.
We should be especially vigilant about our toes as they often take a battering. “Shoes should be long enough and deep enough to avoid any pressure on the tips of the toes,” advises Brown. “The shape and the width of the shoes should be more or less the same as your feet and soles should be made of non-slip resilient materials.”
Some stores have even taken shopping for shoes a step further with computer-mapping shoe fitting systems. “These kinds of systems involve getting a customer to stand and walk on a sensitive pressure pad,” explains Peter Lumb, a podiatry consultant.
“The pad provides information to a computer about the customer‘s foot, where each foot bears the most pressure and where the most support in a shoe is required, as well as motion control and stability requirements.”
“Without the help of proper shoe fitting, it is easy to buy the wrong shoe, which can result in discomfort and possible injury,” Lumb adds.
How to be be kind to your feet
While we’re well aware of the importance of warming up before exercising to avoid muscular injury, Lumb says this is just as important for your feet as it is for your whole body.
“Especially focus on warming up before running or walking,” says Lumb. “Pace yourself, and try non-weight-bearing activities such as swimming or cycling, which are kinder on your feet.”
Keep in mind the importance of seeing a podiatrist before embarking on any psychical activity, as you may need particular attention for specific foot complaints.
“Your podiatrist may use taping or strapping to provide extra support for your foot. Orthoses (shoe inserts) specifically made to suit your needs may also be prescribed,” says Lumb.
Heel pain – caused by placing too much stress on the heel bone and the soft tissues attached to it – is the most common complaint of people who exercise regularly, especially runners. Any kind of walking, jogging or jumping on hard surfaces can exacerbate the problem, so ensure you’re properly fitted for training or running shoes to avoid any pain issues.
We should consider our feet as a long-term investment and show them a little respect. One of the most common, and yet easily avoidable, foot complaints is ingrown toenails. This is caused by improperly trimming nails, shoe pressure, or repeated trauma to the feet from normal activities.
“Most cases will require conservative treatment while others may need a minor surgical correction which can be conducted in a podiatrist’s room, using a local anaesthetic,” says podiatrist Angela Michaelidis. Fungal infections are also fairly common, but are among the most troublesome of nail conditions to treat.
“If you notice any discoloration or separation of the front of the nail from the nail bed, get to a chemist for a fungal treatment straight away or visit your local podiatrist,” says Michaelidis. “Left untreated, minor fungal infections can seriously infect the nail bed.”
Are your feet under pressure?
Another common problem is calluses or corns, which are caused by continuous pressure in one particular area.
“Although most of the time calluses or corns are simply caused by ill-fitting or inappropriate footwear, in some instances they may indicate abnormalities or deformity in bone structure or in the way a person walks,” warns Michaelidis, “so it’s imperative you visit a podiatrist to get this checked out.”
We should never underestimate the benefits of a good pedicure. A licensed beautician can trim and shape your nails correctly, preventing in-grown toenails, while regular scouring of your soles will prevent dry, thickened skin. A professional foot massage will also increase blood flow to the feet which can help prevent atherosclerosis, or hardened arteries in the feet.
If getting regular pedicures is a little out of your budget, be sure to always trim toenails straight across to a length just below the end of the toe, remembering not to round off the corners.
As Michaelidis advises: “Use a strong pair of nail clippers and afterwards smooth nails with a file or emery board, using downward strokes.”
A more serious foot complaint is bunions, though they are actually quite common.
A bunion refers to the bony growth on the outside of the big toe that forms as the bone under the toe shifts. This results in the big toe moving out of place and moving towards the other toes.
Bunions can be caused by ill-fitted shoes, as well as over pronation (excessive rolling in of the foot), a lack of strength in foot ligaments or they can even be heredity.
You’ll know you’ve fallen victim of a bunion if your skin is irritated around the inner-side of your foot, you experience pain when walking, have joint redness or notice a possible shift of the big toe toward the other toes. Blisters may form more easily around the site of the bunion as well.
If you’ve noticed any of these signs visit a podiatrist, who will fit you for orthotics, subscribe bunion pads or splints, or at the last resort suggest surgery.
And of course, they’ll advise you to give those Jimmy Choos a rest!
If you think your feet are in need of some expert care, please contact one of our participating podiatrists. Find a podiatrist near you here.