Your feet can actually reveal hidden health problems. Here, what they may be trying to tell you.

“Your feet are a mirror of your health,” says Dr. Sheldon Nadal, a Toronto-based podiatrist with 30 years experience treating foot problems. “If you have poor circulation, if you smoke, if you have a circulatory disease or poor nutrition, it’s going to affect your feet.”

So what signs should you look out for? We spoke with Dr. Nadal about some of the common foot problems and symptoms that affect adults.

Dry or cracking skin

The face isn’t the only place you’ll see the signs of aging. As we get older, skin becomes thinner and drier on the feet too. While dry skin isn’t a crisis, those cracks and cuts can open the way to infection. In most cases, some regular moisturizing will do the trick, but watch for any wounds that won’t heal — they could be a sign of a more serious illness like diabetes.

Peeling and itching

Dry skin can also be a symptom of a fungal infection like the dreaded athlete’s foot, especially when accompanied by peeling, itching, scaling and inflammation. Fungus often shows up in the warm, moist area between the toes where it can easily spread to the nails if left untreated.

Fungus can be easy to pick up, especially if you like to go barefoot on the beach or in the locker room. Your best defense is to keep your feet protected with footwear and keep your feet dry with fresh socks and talcum powder as needed.

Thick, yellow nails

It could be the normal affects of aging, but it could also be a sign of nail fungus. Embarrassment aside, fungus can be difficult to treat because topical medications like creams often aren’t effective and oral medications can have potentially harmful side effects like liver damage. However, laser treatments are revolutionizing the treatment of fungus — minus any pain or risks.

Another culprit of yellow nails? The chemicals in nail polish can cause damage. It’s a good idea to give your nails a breather, Dr. Nadal advises, especially during the winter when toes aren’t on display. A little sunshine won’t hurt either — the UV rays can even help kill unwanted organisms.

Black or dark toenails

Often the result of an injury, the colour is caused by a bruise under the nail. Unfortunately, the bruise can lead to other problems like a fungal infection or a sore that could become infected. Discoloured nails should be checked out, especially if you have diabetes.

Ingrown toenails

Improper grooming techniques, injury, hereditary and structural problems can all cause the toe nail to curl under and dig painfully into the skin. Poorly fitting shoes are also a cause, so it’s no surprise this problem shows up more often in women than men. Luckily, it can be treated in office by a podiatrist.

In most cases, it’s an issue that can easily be prevented. Make sure to trim your nails properly — always cut straight across rather than rounding edges — and that your shoes fit properly, especially in the toe area.


There’s one rule when it comes to pain: “Don’t ignore it; it’s not normal,” says Dr. Nadal. Foot pain can have many causes from arthritis to plantar fasciitis, but you’ll need some expert advice to determine the problem and find a treatment.

Osteoarthritis is a common problem, but it’s not the only cause. Pain and inflammation could also be due to a systemic condition like rheumatoid arthritis. Injury and repetitive stress can also cause tendonitis. A proper diagnosis is important because you may need more than painkillers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can target inflammation, but many podiatrists such as Dr. Nadal also use drug-free treatments like sound wave therapies.

Heel pain

Arch and heel pain could be a “mechanical problem” — that is, the parts of your feet (like your joints and tendons) aren’t balanced properly. Not only can this cause pain in your feet, it can also impact your knees, hips and back and even contribute to neck pain. Supportive footwear and orthotics can help correct the issue.

But don’t run out to the drug store without a consult: chances are you’ll need some customization to increase your comfort. Treatment for some conditions like plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of the connective tissue on the bottom of your feet — may also require stretching exercises and physiotherapy.

Pain in the toe

Think it’s just a sprain? The big toe is a popular site for attacks of gout, a form of arthritis where a build up of uric acid in the body can deposit and crystallize in the sacks that surround joints. The sudden onset of pain, swelling and redness can be mistaken for injury, and gout is often diagnosed only after it’s happened a few times. If you experience these symptoms, take notes to help your diagnosis.

Swelling of the ankles

Known officially as peripheral edema, painless swelling in the feet, ankles and legs should warrant a call to your doctor rather than a podiatrist. Sometimes swelling appears because there’s too much fluid in the body and it builds up in the extremities. The causes can be quite serious — including heart or kidney failure or a blood clot. If it’s accompanied by other strange symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, a trip to the emergency room is in order.

However, swelling could also be a side effect of certain medications like hormone treatments or blood pressure medications. It can also signal infection or a circulatory problem. (See Medline Plus for more information.)

Tingling or numbness

We’ve all experienced that feeling of our feet “being asleep”, but regular numbness or tingling could be a sign of nerve or circulatory issues. While vitamin deficiencies, autoimmune disorders and certain medications could be behind it, many people with diabetes experience poor circulation as well as problems with the nerves.

Numbness should never go unaddressed because it can mask painful problems like foot ulcers and bone conditions that can get worse quite quickly. The message here? Be extra vigilant and inspect your feet regularly — and see a podiatrist or doctor if you spot any unusual changes. (Read more about diabetes and foot health here.)

Foot deformities

Whether due to heredity, injury or illness, foot deformities like hammer toes, bunions and gone spurs can be painful to endure — and they used to be painful to treat. If you’ve been hesitant to get treatment, it’s time to get up to speed with the latest options. Smaller instruments and new techniques work through smaller openings in tissue. The result? Less tissue damage and faster healing.

“Now there are minimally invasive techniques to correct foot deformities that can be done under local anaesthetic right in the office,” reports Dr. Nadal. “There’s less downtime, no cast and no crutches. People can get back to their normal activities sooner.”

Unusual growths

Yes, cancer can occur in the feet too so any usual growths or lesions should be looked at. However, a more common condition that occurs between the fourth and fifth toe is neuroma, an enlarged (but benign) growth of nerves. Pressure from ill-fitting shoes and bone structure issues is often the cause, and corrective footwear is often a good way to counter it.

Any of these symptoms sound familiar? There’s good reason to see a podiatrist in addition to your family doctor. Podiatrists focus on the feet so they’re more knowledgeable about foot conditions and the latest treatment options. They have the expertise to tackle foot problems from many angles, from orthotics to surgery, and acute pain as well as chronic.

You don’t need a physician’s referral to go see one — but it might help to get a recommendation from a friend or family member, suggests Dr. Nadal. If you have feet problems or health conditions that affect the feet, he recommends at least an annual check up with a podiatrist to check on things like insoles and pain management.

Overall, we shouldn’t ignore our feet or simply “live with” pain and discomfort. Many conditions can now be treated with less difficulty, pain or side effects than in the past, and symptoms in our feet often point to other health conditions as well.

For more information about foot health, please visit

Additional sources: Medline Plus, The, the American Podiatric Medical Association website.

 A version of this story was published on May 11, 2018. 



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