When it comes to health concerns, foot pain may be one that seems to have a clear cause and effect—hours spent standing or an unfortunate meeting of your toes and the edge of your dresser, for example. That is often true, of course, which may be why unexplained foot aches can leave you simply stumped. I don’t remember stepping wrong! How could my feet hurt—I’ve been sitting all afternoon! Sometimes there’s more to what can cause your discomfort than meets the eye (or the foot, as it were).
Some factors are largely or even completely beyond your control…
If your parents had problems with their feet, you’re more likely to experience them, too. In particular, bunions (bony bumps at the base of the big toes due to joint misalignment) are often hereditary.
By the time you reach your mid-30s, the fat pads that protect the weight-bearing areas of your feet (the ball and heel) are already thinning, leaving your soles with less built-in cushion; as much as half of that padding can be worn away by age 50.
Other age-related changes, like weakening muscles, tendons and ligaments, can make your feet more susceptible to soreness and pain as well. And though you may associate it more with, say, your knees, the inflammation and joint pain that come with osteoarthritis can strike your feet, too.
Sure, a fractured foot or broken toe can cause you discomfort. But sometimes an injury to another area of your body can cause your foot to hurt. For example, when your Achilles tendon—which connects the muscles in the back of your calf to your heel—ruptures, you could feel pain in the back of your ankle or heel and have trouble bending your foot downward, which makes walking difficult.
“Just having a tight Achilles from exercise and a lack of stretching can also contribute to foot pain,” says Cindy Geyer, M.D., medical director of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.
…but you can influence other reasons why your feet may hurt. Consider each of these and what you can do to help ease your pain and prevent your feet from hurting in the future.
Your feet manage to stand up to the pressure of about 120 percent of your body weight when you walk. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how carrying extra weight can push them past their limit. The force put on your feet by being overweight can strain muscles, lead to plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes) and worsen hammertoes (when the middle joint bends downward) and bunions.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can help you avoid or improve these issues.
Flat or High Arches
If you have flat soles, the muscles and tendons in and around your feet stretch and weaken with use, increasing the likelihood of problems such as tendinitis (tendon inflammation). Having high arches, on the other hand, means you have less natural shock absorption: The ball and heel of your foot have to endure more pressure, which increases your chances of feeling pain in those areas (as well as straining your knees, hips and back).
This can also lead to painful bone or heel spurs—protrusions on the heel bone. While the profile of your foot isn’t something you can change, over-the-counter arch supports can often reduce pain caused by flat feet, while custom-made inserts are a better option if you have high arches—the personal fit aligns and supports your foot to allow for more cushioning. Stretching can help soothe your aching feet as well—and help lessen future pain.
High heels may hurt when you put them on, but the most significant pain may come from long-term wear: The height forces your feet to unevenly distribute weight. The ball and heel carry most of the load, putting you at risk for hammertoes, neuromas (pinched nerves near the ball of the foot) and “pump bump” (a protrusion of the bone on the back of the heel). Too-tight shoes of any kind rub against the skin on your feet, which can cause you to develop painful calluses (thickened skin on the balls of your feet) and corns (toe calluses).
See a podiatrist for any of these issues, and choose footwear wisely: A pick with an ample toe box, supportive sole and low heel height is best. It’s a good idea to also get measured every few years, as your size may go up (or get wider) with age. Women may also want to consider getting remeasured for shoes during pregnancy, as the feet can widen and flatten during this time, Dr. Geyer says.