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May 1, 2017

Why Your Feet Hurt (and How to Make Them Feel Better)

by John Hastings

Foot pain is common – one in four of us suffers it frequently, according to research in the aptly named journal Pain. But your feet don’t have to bring you down, says Adam D. Bitterman, DO, orthopedic surgeon and foot and ankle specialist at the Northwell Health Orthopaedic Institute. “There’s almost always a solution,” he says, and the fix is often a simple one. Here are three common culprits behind foot pain, and the moves that can help ease the ache.

Your feet have grown without you noticing. Our feet get bigger and wider as we age, yet people tend to keep buying the same size shoe. A study in 2015 of 100 older people found that nearly four out of five wore shoes that either didn’t fit right or offered inadequate support. The most common mistake was failing to realize that a wider shoe was in order. “Typically, your feet widen as you age,” says Dr. Bitterman, “and they may actually swell more throughout the day than they used to.” That matters, because tight shoes can cause blisters or damage a tendon, or even lead to a lasting deformity in the toes or ball of the foot, Dr. Bitterman says.

What to do: Shop for shoes in the afternoon or evening, when your feet are at their biggest. Make sure your toes have room to wiggle, and that the shoe is wide enough that the broadest part of your foot -- just behind your toes -- doesn’t feel pinched. Your heel should feel supported and snug; for the sake of stability (and to avoid blisters), you don’t want it sliding around.

You’re pushing too hard. Many of Dr. Bitterman’s patients fall into the weekend warrior category. “They tend to overdo it on Saturday and Sunday,” he says, “and their feet and ankles suffer as a result.” He sees sprains, strains, stress fractures and even tendon ruptures.

What to do: The same advice that protects you from other sports injuries will also help guard your feet: If you haven’t been exercising regularly, resist the urge to go all-out at first, says Dr. Bitterman. Start slowly and gradually, with 15 to 20 minute walks around the neighborhood; tack on a couple of minutes each week to get in shape for more intense activity. If you’re already in pain, rest your foot for a week or two. Elevate it when possible, advises Dr. Bitterman; any time you settle in for a while -- in front of the computer, for example, or in the evenings while watching TV -- ice it for 20 minutes out of every hour. If the pain persists for more than a a couple of weeks, it’s time to call an orthopedist for further evaluation.

Your feet need some extra TLC. Your feet take thousands of steps a day, every day – is it any surprise that eventually they show signs of wear? With age, the protective fat pads on the bottom of your feet get thinner, the cartilage cushioning in the ankle begin to break down, and the connective ligaments and tendons can fray. It’s not unusual for people to develop arthritis, bunions, fallen arches or even nerve damage. “Feet take a lot of punishment, and they’re bound to break down at some point,” Dr. Bitterman says.

What to do: Many of the foot issues that surface with age can be managed, Dr. Bitterman says; your doctor can help you determine the right remedy to try. Cushioned shoes and insoles or gel pads can help if your natural shock absorbers have thinned, for instance. Insoles may also be part of the answer if you’ve developed arthritis; specific exercises can often help relieve the pain, too. (Also helpful: losing weight if you’re overweight.) Whatever you do, don’t take foot discomfort lying down, Dr. Bitterman says. An orthopedic foot specialist can help you kick your foot pain to the curb so you can stay active.