What is foot and toe pain?
With 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves, it’s no wonder that your foot can easily be injured. Not only do your feet support your weight, but they withstand a significant amount of force as you walk, run, jump or stand.
The average person spends about 4 hours a day on his or her feet, and most take between 8,000 and 10,000 steps a day. It’s not surprising, then, that a leading cause of foot pain is wearing shoes that don’t fit properly.
In some cases, foot pain is mild and goes away on its own. Other times, foot pain can be a sign of an injury, structural problem or more severe medical condition that needs medical attention. When in doubt, check with a doctor.
What are common foot and toe problems?
Foot pain commonly develops in one of three spots: the toes, the forefoot (front of the foot) and the hindfoot (back of the foot).
Common causes of toe pain include:
- Corns and calluses, or hard, dead skin
- Ingrown toenails, when the edge or corner of the nail curves into the skin
- Bunions, when the base of your big toe gets bigger and begins to stick out to the side, creating a painful bump, while the end of the big toe starts angling in toward your other toes; a bunionette is a painful bump on the outside of the pinky toe
- Morton’s neuroma, when the nerve between the third and fourth toes gets inflamed and causes pain
- Toe deformities, such as hammertoe or claw toe, when one or both joints of the smaller toes become abnormally bent.
Possible causes of pain in the forefoot include:
- Stress fracture(s), or tiny cracks in the bone that result from overuse; stress fractures in the foot often occur toward the front of the foot near the second or third toes
- Metatarsalgia, or pain in the ball of the foot that does not have a known cause
- Tendinitis or fractures in the bones near the front of the foot
Some causes of pain in the heel and hindfoot include:
- Achilles tendinitis, when the tendon that attaches your calf muscle to your heel bone becomes irritated or inflamed
- Achilles tendon bursitis
- Bursitis in the heel of the foot
In addition, there are several conditions that can affect any part of the foot:
- Diabetic foot problems, including ulcers or structural problems
- Plantar fasciitis
What are the symptoms of a foot or toe problem?
Your symptoms will vary depending on the underlying cause of your foot pain. Pain can be lasting or temporary and can cause inflammation or further injury.
Symptoms associated with foot or toe problems include:
- Pain that gets worse with activity or exercise
- Immediate, severe pain
- A dull, constant ache
- Tenderness to the touch
- Inability to put any weight on the injured foot
- Difficulty walking
What should I do if I have foot pain?
If you have foot pain or have suffered a foot injury, call your doctor to see if you should have it checked out. While you may assume the pain will go away, you could be risking further injury.
Do seek out medical attention if you have any of the following:
- Sudden, severe pain
- Pain following an injury, especially if there is bruising, bleeding, deformity or you cannot put weight on your foot
- A swollen, red joint (could indicate an infection)
- Any cut, scrape or ulcer if you are diabetic
- Foot pain that lasts after a week or two of self-care at home
If your doctor does recommend that you come in, you can take steps to relieve foot pain until your appointment:
- Rest – Stay off the injured foot and avoid activities – even walking – that aggravate your symptoms.
- Ice – Apply ice packs or a bag of frozen vegetables to your foot as soon as possible after injury. Icing helps reduce swelling and pain.
- Elevate – Raise your injured foot above the level of your heart.
- Wear special pads or cushions – Pads or cushions can relieve pressure on certain areas of your foot and prevent your shoe from rubbing painfully against the skin.
- Take over-the-counter medications – Ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) or acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) can help ease pain and inflammation.
How are foot and toe problems diagnosed?
If you see a doctor, he or she will ask you about your symptoms, any history of previous foot injuries, what you were doing when you first felt the pain, and the type and intensity of your physical activity. Once the doctor pinpoints the location of your pain, he or she can narrow down the likely causes.
A physical examination provides your doctor with many clues because many foot issues can be felt through the skin. In addition, your doctor may:
- Watch how you walk (called your “gait”)
- Inspect your foot and ankle while you sit and stand. Swelling usually occurs if a joint is injured. Certain foot features such as high arches or flat feet can also help your doctor determine the cause of your pain.
- Inspect your shoes. Where and how your shoe gets worn can give your doctor information about how you walk, which can reveal certain foot deformities.
Your doctor may be able to diagnose you after a physical exam alone. However, he or she may want to check for other injuries. To do this, you may take one or more tests, including:
- X-rays, which can reveal if you have any broken bones, stress fractures, a bone spur or other bone-related problems
- CT scan, which takes detailed, cross-sectional views (often called slices) of the bones and soft tissues in your foot. A CT scan may be used to detect or rule out arthritis or fractures.
- MRI, which can show detailed images of bones and soft tissues, including muscles, tendons and ligaments. An MRI can be particularly helpful to evaluate tendinitis or bursitis.
How is foot or toe pain treated?
In addition to self-care measures such as rest, ice, elevation and over-the-counter medication, your doctor may recommend these common treatments:
- Changing your footwear – Shoes that provide more support, have lower heels and with wide toe boxes (as opposed to narrow or pointed toes) can help treat and prevent foot problems.
- Using orthotics – Shoe inserts can change the position of your foot, offer better support and relieve pressure on certain parts of your foot. Some people use over-the-counter orthotics from the pharmacy; you can also have orthotics custom-made for your feet.
- Injections – A local anesthetic can help relieve pain, and a corticosteroid (cortisone) injection can decrease inflammation.
- Immobilization or splinting – If you have a fracture, your doctor may suggest a splint or air cast so the ends of the bone stay together to heal. If you have a minor fracture, you may only need a shoe with a stiff sole or a removable brace. Taping a broken toe to its neighbor can help immobilize it.
- Crutches – If you have a stress fracture or other injury that requires a significant rest period, you may need to use crutches to stay off your feet.
- Surgery - Some foot problems require surgery if they are severe or if symptoms interfere with daily life. A doctor may suggest surgery for bunions, severe bursitis or plantar fasciitis.
What can I do to prevent foot and toe injuries?
Listen to your body. If you feel pain in your foot or toe, stop what you’re doing and rest. See a doctor if the pain is severe, lingers for more than a couple weeks, or you cannot walk without pain.
Wear proper footwear. Choose comfortable shoes that are appropriate for your activities. Look for shoes with good arch support and a wide toe box so your toes aren’t squeezed together.
If you can, try to lose weight. Being overweight or obese can put extra stress on your feet.
Lastly, ease into new activities. Doing too much too soon can result in a foot injury. Protect your feet by starting new physical activities slowly and gradually building in intensity.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- What might be causing my foot pain?
- Will you do any tests to diagnose it or rule out possible causes?
- What are other injuries or problems that might be causing my foot pain?
- How serious is my injury?
- What are my treatment options?
- What are the benefits and risks of the various treatment options?
- What treatment approach would you recommend?
- What can I do to help speed the healing process and manage pain?
- Will I have to take time off from work or from activities outside of work?
- How long will it take to recover? Will I recover 100%?
- Will I have to avoid certain activities at work? At home?
- What are my options if initial treatment isn't effective?
Our Medical Advisory Board
Wiser Motion's physician advisors review all information on the site to ensure its accuracy, relevance, and consistency with medical best practices.
James Herndon, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston, MA) and Professor at Harvard Medical School
Leslie Scott Matthews, MD
Chief of Orthopaedic surgery at the Union Memorial Hospital (Baltimore, MD) and Asst. Professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital
Peter Johnson, MD
Medical Director of occupational medicine and employee health at the McLeod Regional Medical Center (Florence, SC)