You could have a broken toe, arthritis—or a problem elsewhere in your body.
Think about the last medical exam you received from your primary care doctor—did he/she look at your feet? Probably not.
What you may not realize: The feet often are the first place that signs of emerging cardiovascular and neurological conditions can be seen—or even melanoma. A good podiatrist (a physician who specializes in care and treatment of the feet) can not only spot problems with your feet, but also detect other medical conditions.
WHEN TO SEE A PODIATRIST
If you have any of the following problems with your feet, see a podiatrist immediately.* Otherwise, see a podiatrist annually for a foot exam if you’re age 40 and older. What to watch for…
- Foot pain that makes walking difficult or changes your gait. Foot pain rarely gets better on its own, since it’s so difficult to avoid using both your feet. Common causes of foot pain include….
Arthritis of the feet or toes (chronic, achy pain).
Inflamed connective tissue. Burning pain on the bottom of the foot where the arch of your foot meets the heel may indicate inflammation of the plantar fascia ligament (a tough, fibrous band of tissue). Burning pain or tenderness along the top of the foot may indicate tendinitis.
Infected cut, sore or blister. A corn (a hard layer of skin that can become painful over time), bunion (potentially painful swollen joint at the base of the big toe) or toenail all can become infected. Signs of infection include redness, swelling and pain.
Bone spurs (excess bone growth that can form on any bone, including those in the joints). Bone spurs themselves are not painful, but they can irritate nearby nerves or bones.
Treatment for conditions that cause foot pain typically involves resting the injured foot (by using crutches, if necessary)…applying ice to the injured area…and using appropriate medication. This may include topical disinfectants and possibly oral anti-biotics if an infection is present and/or anti-inflammatory drugs—typically two ibuprofen (Advil) two to three times a day.
Also helpful: Most pain-related foot problems can be helped by off-the-shelf foot supports (orthotics) that cushion the injured area and promote a proper “heel strike” while walking and running.
Good foot supports (available online and at sporting-goods stores): Superfeet’s Easy-Fit (an orthotic for dress shoes—cost: $20)…Power-step Original (a support that’s good for heel pain—cost: $34)…and Anti-Shox Conform Orthotics (a soft, gel-based support—cost: $18.50).
- Redness or an itchy or painful rash. The feet are a prime breeding ground for athlete’s foot (a fungal infection), especially if you spend time in a public pool or health club. Best treatment: Prescription antifungal creams recommended by a podiatrist.
- Black and blue foot or toe. Injury to the foot often involves the “little toe,” which frequently results in a broken toe. Contrary to popular belief, broken toes don’t necessarily heal on their own. If the toe isn’t X-rayed and properly taped by a podiatrist, this can result in the subsequent tearing of the attached ligament, causing ongoing pain or affecting your balance.
WHAT YOUR FEET TELL ABOUT THE REST OF YOUR BODY
During a foot exam, your podiatrist also will look for signs of medical conditions affecting other parts of your body, and if any of the following are present, perhaps refer you to a specialist (such as a neurologist or oncologist)…
- Circulatory problems. Your podiatrist may squeeze one of your toes until it turns white to see how quickly the toe regains its normal color, indicating that blood has flowed back into the capillaries. If the color doesn’t return within a few seconds, you may have impaired blood flow, which could signal arterial blockages in other parts of the body.
- Neurological disorders. If you pull your feet away because you’re oversensitive to your podiatrist’s touch (such as when he/she cuts your toenails), this may be a sign of hyperreflexia. This condition can be an early indicator of Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis.
- Diabetes. If your feet are insensitive to the podiatrist’s touch, this may signal neuropathy—damage to the nerves in the feet that often is an early sign of diabetes.
- Melanoma. Your podiatrist should check your soles and between your toes for abnormal moles that could indicate melanoma. These often-overlooked areas get very little sun exposure, yet they can hide a melanoma tumor.
*To find a podiatrist, go to the Web site of the American Podiatric Medical Association (apma.org).
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