Foot Pain Causes

  • Zeina Al-Ait Master's degree, Computer Software Engineering, Lebanese University - Faculty of Sciences
  • Maariya Rachid Daud Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Bioprocessing and Chemical Engineering, The University of Manchester
  • Morag Morris-Paterson Master of Science - MS, Sport Physiotherapy, University of Bath, UK

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Foot health is essential for a fulfilling life, as foot pain can disrupt our daily routines. In this guide, we’ll explore the common causes of foot pain, their effects, and how to prevent them. This resource is your comprehensive reference for all things related to foot pain. Join us on this journey towards pain-free and active living. 

Common categories of foot pain causes:

  • Biomechanical 
  • Medical 
  • Overuse and Injuries
  • Circulatory 
  • Neurological 

We’ll explore each of these categories in-depth with reliable sources to help you gain a thorough understanding of foot pain.

Biomechanical issues

Biomechanical issues refer to problems related to the physical structure and function of the foot itself. Some examples of biomechanical problems that often lead to foot pain are explained below:

Plantar fasciitis 

This is caused by a frequent cause of heel discomfort, characterised by inflammation in the thick tissue band connecting the heel bone to the toes. Plantar fasciitis typically results in sharp morning pain that often decreases the more you become active. Athletes such as footballers can suffer from plantar fasciitis. While it’s not a common injury associated with football, it can occur due to factors like biomechanics and overuse.1

Bunions 

Bunions are very common and can lead to severe foot pain. Many fashionable shoes, including high heels and men’s footwear, feature a distinctive pointed design. While aesthetically appealing, it can have the unintended consequence of the development of bunions. Bunions manifest as a bony bump that gradually forms on the joint at the base of your big toe and can be a source of discomfort and pain.

Hammer toes 

Hammertoes often arise from an imbalance in the muscles and tendons responsible for controlling the movement. This imbalance causes one or more toes to bend abnormally at the middle joint. Several factors can contribute to the development of this muscular and tendinous imbalance, including narrow shoes. Over time, the toe may retain its curled position even when not confined by shoes.

To prevent problems like plantar fasciitis, it is essential to maintain a healthy weight, wear shoes with good arch support, and stretch your calf muscles regularly. For bunions, it is recommended to choose shoes with a roomy toe area, avoid high heels, and consider bunion pads. To manage hammertoes, wear shoes with enough toe space and do regular toe-stretching exercises. Regular foot massages and warm water soaks can also help. If the pain persists, it is always advisable to consult a podiatrist for personalised advice.

Medical conditions

When foot pain is linked to medical conditions, it usually means that there are underlying health problems that are affecting the feet. These problems require specific diagnosis and treatment to reduce discomfort and improve the overall health of the foot.

 Some common health issues that frequently result in foot pain include:

Arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for conditions characterised by joint inflammation and degeneration. There are two prevalent types of arthritis associated with foot pain:2

  • Osteoarthritis, stemming from gradual cartilage wear and tear and 
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder affecting the joints.

Both types of arthritis can cause discomfort, stiffness, and swelling in the foot joints, greatly affecting mobility and comfort.

Gout 

Gout is a different type of arthritis where uric acid crystals accumulate in the joints, resulting in sudden, intense pain, redness, and swelling, commonly affecting the big toe. This condition tends to have recurring episodes, and its management involves medication to lower uric acid levels, along with lifestyle changes and dietary adjustments to prevent future attacks and protect joint health.

Diabetes

Diabetes can lead to foot pain through various mechanisms, primarily due to its impact on the nerves and blood vessels in the feet. One of the most common causes of foot pain in diabetes is diabetic neuropathy, which arises from nerve damage due to prolonged high blood sugar levels. Neuropathy can lead to tingling, burning, or sharp pain in the feet. Over time, it can cause loss of sensation, making it difficult to detect injuries or sores on the feet. Diabetic neuropathy cannot be turned back once it happens, but you can still manage its symptoms. By monitoring the blood sugar levels, you can help prevent neuropathy from starting or slow down its progress if you already have symptoms.

Diabetes can also increase the risk of foot ulcers, which are open sores that can become infected and painful. Nerve damage (neuropathy) can make it challenging to feel these ulcers, leading to delayed treatment. Diabetic foot ulcers are a major factor in hospital admissions, surpassing other complications of diabetes. Currently, diabetes stands as the primary contributor to non-traumatic amputations in the United States. In general, around 5% of individuals with diabetes mellitus experience foot ulcers, and approximately 1% of them undergo amputations.3

If you suspect you may have any of these medical conditions causing foot pain, such as arthritis, gout, or diabetes-related foot problems, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve your quality of life and prevent potential complications.

Overuse and injuries

Several injury types can result from repetitive stress, such as running, jumping, or activities that strain the feet. 

Stress fractures 

Stress fractures are small cracks in the foot’s bones that are usually caused by repeated stress or excessive use. They are more common in athletes, runners, and those who participate in high-impact activities. These fractures often lead to pain, swelling, and tenderness in one specific area

Athletes who play sports that put a lot of stress on their lower bodies are more likely to develop stress fractures, including:

  • Running 
  • Basketball
  • Tennis
  • Gymnastics 

Achilles tendonitis

Achilles tendinitis refers to inflammation of the Achilles tendon, the large tendon connecting the calf muscles to the heel bone. After engaging in physical activity, you might encounter discomfort on the following day or when ascending stairs.

To prevent overuse and injury-related foot issues, warm up before exercise, wear suitable footwear, and gradually increase workout intensity. If you suspect an issue, rest, ice, and elevate your foot. If the pain persists or worsens, consult a healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment guidance.

Circulatory problems

Circulatory problems can cause foot pain primarily by reducing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the lower extremities. This reduced blood flow leads to insufficient oxygen supply, buildup of waste products, and discomfort, particularly during physical activity when the muscles require more oxygen than the restricted circulation can provide.

Some of the common circulatory problems that can lead to foot pain include:

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)

PAD can be a result of atherosclerosis, where fatty deposits accumulate in the arteries, restricting blood flow. Many individuals with PAD may not experience noticeable symptoms, but some encounter a painful leg ache when walking, known as “intermittent claudication”.

Managing circulatory problems that lead to foot pain involves addressing the underlying condition and improving blood flow to the affected area. Lifestyle changes such as adopting a heart-healthy diet, engaging in regular exercise to promote circulation, quitting smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight can be beneficial.

Neurological factors

Neurological issues refer to problems related to the nervous system. We have already discussed diabetic neuropathy. Let's delve into another neurological cause, sciatica, which can affect nerve function and sensation in the feet.

Sciatica

Sciatica is a condition that occurs when there’s pressure or compression on the sciatic nerve. This pain is often accompanied by tingling sensations and muscle weakness in the affected leg and foot.

When dealing with neurological causes of foot pain, seeking professional medical advice is crucial. Consult a healthcare provider, preferably a neurologist or orthopaedic specialist, to determine the underlying issue and receive tailored treatment.

Risk factors

Age

As we age, our feet can undergo natural changes, including reduced cushioning in the soles and less flexibility in the joints. These changes can increase the risk of foot pain, especially among older individuals.

Occupation and physical activity

Jobs or activities that require long hours of standing, walking, or heavy lifting can strain the feet and increase the risk of pain.

Footwear

Wearing ill-fitting shoes, especially those with high heels or inadequate support, can lead to various foot problems, as mentioned above.

Genetics

Family history can play a role in foot pain. 

Summary

Understanding the root causes of foot pain is crucial for maintaining overall foot health and preventing potential complications. Whether stemming from all the causes mentioned above, early detection and timely treatment are essential. By taking proactive measures such as good foot care, regular check-ups, injury prevention, and adopting a healthy lifestyle, you can safeguard your feet and ensure a life free from the discomfort of foot pain. Remember, your feet are your foundation for mobility and well-being, so prioritise their care to enjoy a pain-free and active life.

References

  1. Noriega DC, Cristo Á, León A, García-Medrano B, Caballero-García A, Córdova-Martinez A. Plantar fasciitis in soccer players — a systemic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2022 Nov 3 [cited 2023 Sep 20];19(21):14426. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9653655/
  2. .Mohammed A, Alshamarri T, Adeyeye T, Lazariu V, McNutt LA, Carpenter DO. A comparison of risk factors for osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis using NHANES data. Prev Med Rep [Internet]. 2020 Nov 5 [cited 2023 Sep 20];20:101242. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7689317/
  3. Oliver TI, Mutluoglu M. Diabetic foot ulcer. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Sep 20]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537328/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Zeina Al-Ait

Master's degree, Computer Software Engineering, Lebanese University - Faculty of Sciences

Zeina Al-Ait is a computer science graduate with expertise in health, particularly diabetes. She has authored several articles on this subject, emphasizing diabetes awareness and challenging conventional health perspectives. Zeina is currently pursuing studies in bioinformatics to expand her knowledge in the field.

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