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.
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.)
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.”
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.