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Search Health Information    Toe, Foot, and Ankle Problems, Noninjury

Toe, Foot, and Ankle Problems, Noninjury

Topic Overview

Illustration of the bones of the foot Everyone has had a minor problem with a toe, foot, or ankle. Most of the time our body movements do not cause problems, but it's not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear or overuse. Toe, foot, or ankle problems can also occur from injuries or the natural process of aging.

Your toes, feet, or ankles may burn, sting, hurt, feel tired, sore, stiff, numb, tingly, hot, or cold. You may have had a "charley horse" (muscle cramp) in your foot while lying in bed at night. Your feet or ankles may change color or swell. You may have noticed an embarrassing odor from your feet. Some changes in your feet and ankles are normal as a person ages or during pregnancy. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your symptoms.

Toe, foot, or ankle problems may be caused by an injury. If you think an injury caused your problem, see the topic Toe, Foot, or Ankle Injuries. But there are many noninjury causes of toe, foot, or ankle problems.

Skin problems

Most skin problems that affect your feet are more annoying than they are serious. If you have:

  • The feeling of walking on pebbles: You may have plantar warts on the bottom of your feet.
  • Patches of thick and tough skin on the heel or ball of your foot: You may have a callus, corn, blister, or skin growth.
  • Red, peeling, cracking, burning, and itchy skin between your toes or on the bottom of your feet: You may have athlete's foot. Or maybe your feet are reacting to the shoes you are wearing ( shoe dermatitis ).
  • Red, swollen, and painful skin around a toenail: You may have an ingrown nail or an infection around your nail ( paronychia ).
  • Red, swollen soles of your feet that are painful to the touch or when you walk: You may have a bacterial infection. Public showers, hot tubs, or swimming pools are common areas where bacterial infections, athlete's foot, and warts can be spread to your feet.

Joint problems

Toe joints are more likely to develop problems than other joints in your feet.

  • Heat, pain, redness, swelling, and extreme tenderness that comes on quickly in your big toe joint may be caused by gout . Similar symptoms can occur with an infection.
  • If you have swelling or a bump at the base of your big toe, you may have a bunion .
  • If you have a bump on the outside of your little toe, you may have a bunionette , also called a Tailor's bunion.
  • If your toes, other than your big toes, bend in an odd position, you may have hammer toes, mallet toes, or claw toes .
  • Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are common when you have conditions such as bursitis , arthritis , lupus , or gout.

Pain

You may develop pain in the front (ball) of your foot (metatarsalgia) or in your heel. Heel problems commonly occur when you overuse calf muscles, wear shoes with high heels, or participate in activities, such as running, that cause repeated pounding on your heels.

Numbness or tingling

Many conditions may affect the nerves of the foot and cause numbness, tingling, and burning.

  • Pain, burning, tingling, or numbness that occurs between your toes, especially the third and fourth toes, and in the ball of your foot may be caused by a growth around the nerves (Morton's neuroma).
  • Pain, numbness, and tingling that begins in your back or buttock, moves down your leg, and into your foot may be sciatica , caused by a pinched nerve (nerve root compression).
  • Foot and ankle pain that occurs with numbness and weakness in your foot may be caused by a pinched nerve in your ankle ( tarsal tunnel syndrome ) or back (sciatica).
  • Burning, numbness, or lack of feeling in your feet may be caused by poor circulation, especially in people who have diabetes or peripheral arterial disease . The circulation problem can lead to nerve damage (peripheral neuropathies). Foot problems are more likely to develop in people who have these conditions.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Most minor toe, foot, or ankle problems go away on their own. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your pain, swelling, and stiffness.

  • If you have swelling, be sure to remove all rings , anklets, or any other jewelry that goes around your leg or ankle. It will be harder to remove your jewelry if swelling increases, which in turn can cause other serious problems, such as nerve compression or restricted blood flow.
  • Use rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) for pain and swelling.
  • Stop, change, or take a break from any activities that cause your symptoms.
    • Avoid "running through the pain," which may increase damage to your foot.
    • Consider changing your exercise routine if you think running or another high-impact sport is causing your foot pain. Switch temporarily to a low-impact exercise activity, such as cross-country skiing, stair-climbing machines, bicycling (regular or stationary), rowing, or swimming.
    • Use sensible sports training techniques, such as wearing the right shoes and stretching before activities.
  • Gently massage your feet to reduce discomfort, relax your feet, and promote circulation.
  • Wear comfortable and supportive shoes and socks. See tips on good footwear to learn how to choose the right shoes for you.
  • Consider using an orthotic shoe device, such as an arch support, to help relieve your foot pain.
  • Try heel-cord exercises to increase your strength and flexibility if your heel or heel cord (Achilles tendon) is tight and painful. This may help relieve your heel pain.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Try home treatment for these other foot problems such as:

  • Foot cramps. Try the following home treatment to help relieve leg cramps:
    • Straighten your leg.
    • Hold your foot and pull it toward you. It is probably easiest to do this from a sitting position. You can loop a towel around the end of your foot and pull it toward you if you have trouble reaching your foot.
    • Gently rub or massage your foot.
  • Calluses and corns . Home treatment may help relieve discomfort from corns, calluses, or other thickened skin:
    • To thin a corn or callus, rub the thickened skin with a towel after a shower or bath.
    • Use a pumice stone after bathing to reduce the tissue. Do not do this if you have diabetes, peripheral arterial disease, or an immune system problem, or if you have been told that you have poor circulation in your feet.
    • Pad pressure areas with doughnut-shaped felt, moleskin patches , or lamb's wool.
    • Never cut corns or calluses. Infection may develop.
    • Some lotions and moisturizers may also relieve symptoms from corns and calluses.
  • Blisters. Home treatment for blisters depends on whether the blister is small or large and whether it has broken open. See a picture of blisters .
  • Swollen ankles and feet. Try the following home treatment measures to reduce swelling in your ankles and feet:
    • Elevate swollen feet and ankles on a footstool or pillows (above the level of your heart) when sitting for any length of time.
    • Get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour if you sit for any length of time.
    • Cut down on your salt ( sodium ) intake or make a salt substitute. Sodium can be hidden in foods such as cheese, canned soups, and salad dressing. Talk to your doctor before trying a salt substitute.

If you are diagnosed with a foot problem, other home treatment steps may help.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Check your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain or swelling develops.
  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Numbness, tingling, or cool, pale skin develops.
  • Symptoms continue despite home treatment.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may prevent toe, foot, or ankle problems.

General tips

  • Bathe your feet daily in lukewarm (not hot) water. Use a mild soap, preferably one containing moisturizers, or use a moisturizer separately.
  • Avoid problems by wearing good footwear. Wear comfortable and supportive shoes. Support weak or unstable ankles by using a brace or taping before exercise or activities that increase your risk of problems.
  • Wear the correct size panty hose and stockings. Avoid wearing constricting garters, knee-high, or thigh-high stockings.
  • Use a rubber mat to stand on if your work requires you to stand on hard surfaces. This may reduce stress on your feet.
  • Maintain a reasonable weight for your height.

Exercise tips

  • Do stretching exercises for the tendons at the back of the heels. This is especially important for athletes before sports activities but is also helpful for people who are not involved with sports.
  • Walk regularly to improve circulation, increase flexibility, reduce fatigue, and encourage bone and muscle development.
  • Establish good exercise habits and sports training techniques.
  • Consider consulting a sports-training specialist if you are a competitive or serious recreational athlete. He or she can recommend training and conditioning programs to prevent foot problems.

Foot care tips

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • What were you doing when your symptoms started?
  • Have you had this problem in the past? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
  • What activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle, make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Did foot problems begin after you started wearing new footwear?
  • What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you taken? Did they help?
  • Have you started any new medicines or have you had a change in the dosage of a medicine?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised October 1, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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