We walk on them, run on them, jump and dance on them, live life on them. Yep, our feet carry the heavy burden of motoring us around the house, around the office and around town.
And yet, it’s easy to take our feet for granted – they’re just feet, right? Before you write them off as mundane appendages, reconsider: each of your feet is made up of 28 bones, 30 joints and a staggering 100-plus muscles, tendons and ligaments. All of those pieces and parts work together to provide support, balance and, ultimately, your ability to move up-right in a smooth, fluid motion.
Given the complexity of your tootsies, it’s no wonder that your feet hurt from time to time. These are the major parts of the foot that, when aggravated, can make getting around more than a little uncomfortable:
Arch: The arch of the foot is formed by the tarsal and metatarsal bones, strengthened by ligaments and tendons. This structure allows the foot to support the weight of the body in an erect posture.
Ball: The padded portion of the sole of the foot between the toes (particularly the big toe) and the arch is the area on which the weight of the body sits when the heel is raised.
Heel: The heel is the rear structure of the foot constructed on the projection of the calcaneusor bone along with a variety of other muscles and tendons to support weight and movement.
Toes: A complex network of bones – including phalanx and metatarsal bones – create the phalanges AKA your toes, which assist in weight bearing and balance.
Not surprisingly, the complexity of your feet leaves them open to injury and irritation. Some of those ailments include:
Plantar fasciitis: A common cause of heel and arch pain. This condition occurs when the plantar fascia, a ligament consisting of a flat band of tissue that supports the arch by connecting the heel to the toes, is strained. The condition occurs as a result of several scenarios, including an inward roll of the feet when walking, high arches or flat feet, long periods of standing, walking or running, ill-fitting shoes or if a person is significantly over weight. Repeated strain of the ligament can cause tiny tears, leading to pain and swelling.
Achilles tendinitis: An overuse injury of the heel that typically plagues runners who have suddenly increased the intensity or length of their runs. It can also strike average adults who take on an occasional, but intense, weekend sports game such as tennis or basketball. Achilles tendinitis is associated with a mild ache in the back of the leg or above the heel after running or playing sports.
Metatarsalgia: A condition that can cause sharp, aching or burning pain in the ball of the foot. The discomfort can worsen when you stand, run, walk or flex your feet. Symptoms of shooting pain, numbness or tingling in the toes can also occur.
Arthritis: Good old fashioned arthritis (an inflammation of the joints of the toes) can create aches and pains. Joint deformities that grow and change over time along with bumps and stubs can also irritate your phalanges like you wouldn’t believe.
The good news is there are a lot of different options for treating and preventing foot pain. Sometimes all it takes to find relief is finding a good fitting pair of athletic shoes and inserting orthotics into daily footwear. But for lingering foot pain that impacts sports activities, exercise or daily life, more assistance might be needed.
Thorough assessments of the foot structure, both at rest and in motion, along with evaluations of gait, lower leg strength and ankle strength can go a long way to explaining chronic discomfort in your feet. A physical therapist can shed light on these issues, offer targeted exercises that build strength and improve flexibility and even fit you for custom or semi-custom orthotics.
A conditioning plan that focuses on the muscle groups of the lower leg and ankle as well as the tendons and ligaments that control movement in your feet can relieve pain over time and prevent further injury down the road. Strengthening and stretching the muscles of the feet and those that support the feet can make a big difference and keep you moving at a comfortable pace.