By this time each winter, I’m getting antsy to trade out stuffy socks and boots for some open-toed sandals. The only problem is that my February feet aren’t exactly ready for any debut. Lingering blisters from poorly -fitting shoes, too-long toenails, and dry, cracked heels are just some of the foot-related woes that creep up after months of cold, dry weather and neglect.
Turns out that ignoring our feet can cause problems beyond the cosmetic—when poorly cared for, feet can affect your gait and posture, potentially leading to chronic back pain.
How so? “The leg bone’s connected to the thigh bone...The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone…,” isn’t just a children’s song—it’s a warning.
Our bodies are like a chain, with one link, or bone, connecting at the joint to another link. When painful bunions, corns, or badly-fitting, blister-causing footwear are allowed to persist, it can change the way you walk, which can also change the way all your other joints move with each other.
Which can cause even more problems: Over-stressed or malaligned joints can wear down abnormally fast, tendons can be stressed beyond normal range, and arthritis can set in.
The good news is that caring for your feet isn’t hard. Here’s how to treat five common foot problems, to keep your feet feeling great and sandal-ready all year long:
1. Corns Are Your Body’s Way of Protecting You from Poor Shoe Choices
Corns look a lot like they sound—little lumps that give your poor toes a painful, knobby look—and they’re often caused by poor choices in footwear.
More specifically, corns are a result of hyperkeratosis, which is when your body forms a protective layer of keratin to create a thickened skin over areas suffering chronic irritation. What’s one of the most common causes of chronically irritated feet? You guessed it—footwear that doesn’t fit properly.
Women’s shoes are generally more guilty than their male counterparts of exacerbating fit-related foot problems. Not only are we prone to wearing something less comfortable for appearance, but women’s shoes have to have a tighter fit in general so that they stay on sans-straps.
All that tightness and cramping means rubbing protruding areas and pressure points. And while your body makes corns to protect underlying bone and flesh, they eventually become excessively thick—which can cause corns to rub even more.
The solution? If you’ve already got corns, soften the skin by applying mineral oil to them each night. Then, once in the shower, gently buff corns with a pumice stone or scrub.
Avoiding corns is as simple as buying comfortable shoes that don’t rub and grate. Also, know that there’s no such thing as ‘breaking in’ a shoe! What you’re really doing is forcing your foot to do the brunt work of stretching out its encasement, which can cause problems like corns, but also affect your gait.
Instead, take too-tight shoes to a cobbler to be professionally stretched and treat your feet to something more comfortable while you wait.
2. Bunions Rise Up Because of Pointy Toe Boxes
Hallux valgus, otherwise knows as bunions, usually form as a result of your big toe being forced to bend in the direction of the other toes. The pressure causes a bony bump to form at the base of the big toe—or, if it’s on your little toe, it’s called a bunionette.
Bunions, which sound deceptively like ‘Funyuns,’ usually start as a cosmetic issue that doesn’t cause any discomfort. This can lure the owner of an affected foot to continue on with their bunion-causing habits until that bump progresses into something so painful that surgery is necessary.
Why go under the knife for your feet? Because there’s no other cure for bunions! You can slow down their progress with toe separators or by embracing Birkenstocks, but there’s no removal without the deftly-wielded knife of a foot doctor.
And, lest you think of just letting them be, bunions can hobble your ability to walk worse than Annie Wilkes in Misery.
Instead, the ideal solution for bunions is avoiding surgery altogether. Thankfully, prevention is as easy as shunning shoes with narrow, pointed toe boxes—just one more reason to save high heels for special occasions.
3. Foot Fungus Is the Single, Best Reason Never to Step Foot in a Gym Shower
Developing a fungus, which is exactly what it sounds like—a growth of fungus that lives in the toenail—is surprisingly easy. You can pick one up almost anywhere your bare feet are allowed to touch the ground, including spas, locker room showers, and especially in unclean pedicure tubs. You can even pick one up by traipsing around town in flip flops.
Aside from the how gross foot fungus sounds, it’s especially problematic because fungus is so difficult to treat. To date, there’s no treatment that’s guaranteed to work.
How to spot a foot fungus?
If one or two nails are thickened or lifting from the nail bed, fungus is likely the culprit. However, if all your nails have an irregular appearance, this could be one of a few other conditions. Take any concerns straight to your doctor so that you avoid wasting time and money on over-the-counter treatments that might not be effective.
If a fungus is confirmed, your doctor will likely prescribe an antifungal medication to try and kill it. However, because fungus lives in the nail bed, treatment must continue for six months or more as you wait for the infected portion to grow out.
Like most things, preventing exposure is the best course of action. To avoid picking up a foot fungus, wear moisture-wicking socks and get out of sweaty shoes as soon as possible; make sure you’re going to a clean nail salon, because the jets in the pedicure tubs can harbor fungus; wear flip-flops in any public shower; and, don’t wear flip-flops or any sandals that let your feet come into contact with grime on city streets.
4. Not Caring for Cracked Feet Can Lead to Bigger Problems
Thanks to a lack of oil glands and a life under pressure, feet are prone to cracking. But, it turns out that stretched and split skin carries a bigger risk than just grossing out anyone who bears witness to the bottom of your feet.
Deep cracks and fissures can become portals for infection. The risk is even higher if, like me, your gnarly heels are a result of constant exposure to the elements from excessively wearing of flip flops.
To treat deep cracks, stay away from foot razors or cutting tools, as you’ll risk creating deeper wounds.
Instead, find a foot cream with urea, which not only softens and reduces the rough texture, but also has a localized anesthetic effect. When I can grab ‘em, my two favorites are Kerasal Ultra 20 ($9.99) and O’Keeffe's for Healthy Feet ($8.00).
Once you’ve got your lotion, here’s how you ensure maximum penetration:
- Coat feet in a thick layer of lotion
- Cover each foot in a plastic baggie, like the kind you get from the grocery store
- Put socks on over each bagged-up foot
- Walk around feeling like your feet are swimming in jello for an hour
- Take your feet out of their baggies, and stick ‘em back in their comfy socks
To maintain crack-free feet, give them an exfoliating treatment at least once a week and use a pumice stone when you shower.
5. Blisters Are Yet Another Reason Never to Wear Badly-Fitting Shoes
We’ve all been thirty minutes into wearing a pair of shoes, only to start feeling that distinctive sting. Unlike corns, which develop to cushion flesh and bone from more intense pressure, blisters arise when poorly fitting shoes slip and slide, causing friction against your skin.
If you’re feeling a blister develop and you’re already out and about, rub a waxy chapstick over the area as soon as possible to help prevent further irritation.
If you have access to a drugstore and are in need of immediate relief, skip the bandages and go for moleskin, instead. Whereas band-aids will simply rub off, moleskin can be positioned around the affected area as a buffer, reducing your skin’s contact with the shoe’s surface.
Image via WebMD.com
While you’re there, pick up some Dr. Scholl’s shoe inserts or heel guards to place inside the offending shoes before their next wear.
Once you’ve developed a blister, you’re going to have to give it time to heal. Ideally, you shouldn’t pop it—however, sometimes the skin breaks of its own accord. If that happens, clean your feet and fingers with soap and water, then use rubbing alcohol to sterilize the affected skin. Try to leave the ‘roof,’ or top-layer of skin alone as much as possible. Then, apply an antibiotic ointment and Bandaid on top the blister to prevent infection.
Bottom Line: Don’t Ignore Your Foot Problems
With age comes acceptance of many things, big and small. For me, it was that I should probably stop attempting to stuff my D-width land-skis into cheapo Forever21 stilettos.
Why? Because foot pain isn’t normal.
If you take your shoes off as soon as you get to your desk, or endure feet that hurt by midday, that’s not something to suffer through for the sake of fashion. The same can be said for bunions, corns, and blisters: these are the result of poorly-chosen footwear, which can have far more serious implications beyond just making your feet look like an ancient braille manuscript.
By the age of 50, most people’s feet have logged an amazing 75,000 miles; your car tires don’t last nearly that long. And, while we’re often concerned with appearing younger only from the neck up, there’s no denying that exercise and posture are a far more effective fountain of youth than any cream—which requires healthy feet and toes!
So, treat your feet at least as well as you treat your face. They don’t require expensive creams made of crushed diamonds. Just respectable shoe choices, a thick moisturizer, and occasional care in return for a lifetime of mobility and comfort.