Best Foot Forward
Jumping into summertime fun is much easier when your feet don’t hurt.
by Lisa James
It’s warm outside and people are jogging, hiking and playing sports. Yet here you sit on the sidelines, soaking your achy feet.
Millions of Americans are limping through life. “After 30 years in practice, I am still amazed at how many people are willing to tolerate foot pain,” says Robert Kornfeld, DPM, founder of The Institute for Integrative Podiatric Medicine and The Kornfeld Center in Manhasset, New York.
Foot problems may sound minor. But they can diminish your quality of life—and limit your exercise capacity. What’s more, a number of ailments can leave marks on the feet that are discernible to the trained eye.
Mirrors of Health
Besides injuries such as fractures, strains and sprains, feet are subject to a long list of painful ailments. Tendons can become inflamed as can the plantar fascia, a band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot. The big toe can become deformed, creating a bunion, while the small toes can become bent, forming hammertoes (which may develop callus-like corns where they rub against the shoe).
Benign tumors called neuromas can develop when nerves in the foot become irritated. The skin (especially between the toes) is subject to athlete’s foot, a fungal infection; toenails can be attacked by fungus or become ingrown.
In some cases, reduced foot pain can actually be hazardous. Neuropathy, often caused by diabetes, occurs when nerves lose their ability to sense pain or temperature extremes. Injuries may go unnoticed as a result and gangrene, or tissue death, can set in, which in turn may lead to amputation.
Diabetes isn’t the only disorder that affects the feet. “A foot exam can reveal circulatory, kidney and lung problems, along with thyroid disease, neurologic disorders and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus,” says Kornfeld.
Two ailments that can have a considerable impact on the feet are osteoarthritis and obesity. Kornfeld says that because they’re always being used, feet generate a large amount of cell-damaging free radicals, which the body fights with antioxidants. “We see arthritis in older individuals because the immune system is slower to repair damage. In addition, the delivery of antioxidants is impaired because circulation to the feet decreases with age,” Kornfeld explains.
In a similar manner, “obesity decreases the body’s ability to detoxify. In addition, it impairs circulation to the feet,” Kornfeld says. Obesity may also affect foot structure. Increases in body mass index (BMI) have been linked to increases in plantar fascia thickness (Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association 9-10/08).
Biomechanical faults are another source of foot pain. Most involve pronation, a rotation of the foot inward and downward; abnormal pronation can cause aberrant pressures within the foot. “This sets off a chain reaction. A callus will form on the skin under the affected bone, causing it to become even more inflamed and bruised,” says Glenn Copeland, DPM, consulting podiatrist for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and author (with Stan Solomon) of The Good Foot Book (Hunter House). He says the resulting imbalance can travel upwards to cause knee and hip pain.
Keeping Feet Happy
Many people believe the answer to foot problems is to go barefoot whenever possible. “I cannot overstate what shoes are doing to us. They change the biomechanics of walking and running,” says Daniel Howell, PhD, associate professor of biology at Liberty University and author of The Barefoot Book (Hunter House). If you’re new
to outdoor barefooting, Howell recommends starting slowly until your feet have time to adjust. (Visit the Society for Barefoot Living at www.barefooters.org.)
Howell says urban environments are no problem for bare feet, but Kornfeld is dubious. “Nature did not intend for us to walk barefoot on concrete and asphalt, which do not provide shock absorption,” he says. Kornfeld also worries about wounds from foreign matter, although Howell insists that navigating around such hazards as broken glass is fairly easy.
If you stick with shoes Howell suggests wearing “minimalist” models, which mimic the bare foot. Copeland says the three most important factors in selecting shoes are flexibility, stability and shock absorption. “The one type of shoe that comes closest to meeting all three criteria is the modern running shoe,” he says. Biomechanical faults can be treated with orthotics, which Copeland says are “designed to properly redistribute weight on the foot and to correct any abnormal foot motions.” Bunion sufferers should look for shoes with a wide toe box to accommodate the displaced joint.
One way to avoid instability is through prompt attention to ankle injuries. “After treating patients with chronic ankle pain from untreated sprains, I would suggest that all sprains be seen by a professional,” says Kornfeld, who adds that proper first aid for a sprain requires rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Natural remedies can help ease the inflammation associated with ankle and foot injuries. Herbalists employ arnica cream to prevent swelling and bruising. Other remedies include willow bark, the original source of aspirin, and bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapples. Grape seed helps reduce ankle swelling associated with circulatory difficulties.
Turmeric, devil’s claw and ginger are three herbal inflammation fighters traditionally used to treat arthritis. Many people with arthritis also turn to the joint-nourishing supplements glucosamine and chondroitin, which can be found in formulas that also include MSM, esterified fatty acid carbons and black cherry extract. Athlete’s foot and toenail fungus may respond to tea tree oil, an all-purpose microbe fighter.
The best way to deal with foot problems is to avoid them in the first place. Strengthen your ankles by doing squats against a wall and scrunching a towel with your toes five to 10 minutes a day. Gently stretch your calves and hamstrings before walking; whenever possible, walk on grass or dirt paths. Wear breathable socks—an especially important point if you have diabetes. Apply sunscreen to the tops of your feet. To avoid athlete’s foot, wear flip-flops in communal pool and shower areas.
Style and Comfort With
Okabashi Shoes has created Flip-Flops that are carefully crafted. Superior arch support and a heel cup promote proper alignment of the feet and spine. This can minimize strain on the knees, hips, and back and result in pain relief from several ailments. A toe rest prevents feet from sliding forward, allowing a more sure-footed step. Tiny reflexology-inspired massage beads are strategically placed across the foot-bed of each shoe to stimulate different areas of the sole. Finally, a signature Microplast material is a specially formulated, patented, recyclable blend of durable plastics. The material is soft, flexible, non-slip, odor-resistant, dishwasher safe and contains an anti-microbial agent. Visit www.Okabashi.com.
Strutz Sole Angels
Multitask for the Feet
The Strutz Sole Angel provides relief to achy feet, legs, knees, hips and lower back. It couples medical grade compression material and shock-absorbing technology to reduce stress on the feet. The Strutz Sole Angel lifts fallen arches and flat feet, and promotes better balance, control and body alignment. An anti-microbial treated fabric helps prevent foot odor. Sole Angels add comfort and odor protection to your favorite pair of footwear and can even be worn barefoot. Visit www.lovemystrutz.com.
Injinji Performance Toesocks for Sport or Casual Use
Injinji Performance Toesocks, patented, podiatrist-recommended five-toe-sleeve socks, are designed for sport, outdoor and casual use. Favored by world-class athletes and “everyday people” alike, the Toesocks’ unique Anatomical Interface System technology separates each toe with a thin layer of breathable fabric, offering wearers freedom of movement and preventing the skin-on-skin friction that causes blisters, moisture buildup, athlete’s foot and other common foot ailments. Made for any shoe, climate or terrain, Injinji offers a variety of series and styles: Performance, ideal for those who want the ultimate in moisture management; Outdoor, a year-round sock for hikers, trailrunners, trekkers and more, features temperature-regulating NüWool; and the Yoga Series, a protective interface for yoga, Pilates and mat exercise that keeps feet dry and fresh, courtesy of CoolMax freshFX fabric, which contains bacteria-inhibiting silver fibers. Visit www.injinji.com.