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When your feet hurt, the simple act of walking can become an ordeal. And foot pain is a common annoyance, especially for people who are on their feet for long periods at work, those involved in activities that include running and jumping, and those who are overweight, which puts extra pressure on the feet.
"When our forebears began to walk erect some 6 million years ago, little did they know the downsides of such evolutionary advancement," says Marvin M. Lipman, Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser. "But the result of this abuse of our feet — whether from athletics, obesity, work or bad footwear — has been pain and sometimes disability."
Here, the lowdown on three common foot issues, the likely causes, and how to ease the discomfort.
Skin and nail conditions
What the problem could be: Corns and calluses (hard, thick patches of skin caused by rubbing) are the most frequent factors in foot pain for older adults, according to a study published in the journal Gerontology last year.
A close runner-up? Nail problems such as ingrown toenails and fungal infections.
What to do: Prevent corns and calluses with footwear that fits without pinching or rubbing, and don't go sockless. If you develop a corn or callus, your doctor can help you safely remove the extra layers of skin.
To avoid fungus, always wear footwear in public places such as locker rooms. If you notice discoloration or a thickening of your nails, a podiatrist can confirm whether it's a fungal infection and prescribe medication when needed.
Cutting toenails straight across and filing them at the sides to avoid jagged edges helps prevent ingrown toenails, says Jane Andersen, a podiatrist in Chapel Hill, N.C. If you have difficulty doing this, see a podiatrist for toenail grooming.
Tingling or numbness
What the problem could be: About a third of people with diabetes have foot numbness and tingling, according to Marian Hannan, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School.
With numbness, wounds on the feet may go unnoticed and untreated — and worsen.
Tingling may also signal a problem elsewhere, such as a pinched nerve in your back, says Sandra Klein, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University in St. Louis.
What to do: If you have diabetes, check your feet daily for cuts and blisters, and talk with a doctor or podiatrist about proper foot care. In other cases, a doctor can determine whether an injury might be to blame.
Bone and joint pain
What the problem could be: Bone deformities such as bunions (when the big-toe joint becomes misaligned) and hammertoes (when one or more smaller toes are bent at the middle) often cause pain.
These may occur when footwear — especially shoes with a narrow front or a high heel — puts undue pressure on toes, Klein says. Toe arthritis can also cause foot pain.
What to do: To prevent or ease pain caused by bunions and hammertoes, choose shoes with a round, deep toe box, Andersen says. (In severe cases, some people choose surgery.)
"For arthritis, especially of the toes, footwear with a stiffer sole helps reduce pain by keeping foot joints from having to bend so much," Klein says.
Caring for your feet
If your feet are bothering you, see your primary-care provider, Lipman says. He or she can evaluate you and refer you to specialists such as:
Podiatrists: They receive a doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM) degree after four years of podiatric medical school and three years of hospital residency. Podiatrists can prescribe orthotics, treat ingrown toenails, provide diabetic foot care and perform surgical procedures such as bunionectomies and hammertoe repair.
Physiatrists: After medical school, these MDs complete four years of residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation. They often work with physical therapists, using nonsurgical methods to treat pain and conditions such as plantar fasciitis (usually marked by heel pain) and ankle sprains.
Orthopedic surgeons: These specialists are MDs with five years of residency, usually in general and orthopedic surgery. They can offer surgical treatment for issues such as clubfoot, tendon pain and fractures.
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