What It Means If You Have Foot Pain

Some are serious, and others, not so much.

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Whether it's after a long trek in the wrong shoes, or something worse is going on with our feet, foot pain is, well... a pain. But as for foot pain causes we experience, each has a different explanation. And some are kind of serious!

“The foot is made up of bones, muscles, soft tissues, skin, tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels, so having foot pain may involve any one of these structures of the foot,” explains Constantine George, M.D., Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics.


“The list is extensive and may include Achilles tendinitis, bone spurs, broken foot, broken toe, diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage caused by diabetes), ingrown toenails, psoriatic arthritis, stress fractures, and tumors, amongst several other conditions. If you have foot pain, it’s best to see your primary doctor who may then refer you to a podiatrist and/or an orthopedist.”

But before you freak out about whether or not your foot pain diagnosis is serious, consider the other possibilities.

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1. Tendinitis

What is tendinitis? Simply, it's inflammation or irritation of a tendon. Symptoms include pain in the heel and along the length of the tendon when walking or running, and the area may feel painful and stiff in the morning.


According to Dr. George, “There are two large muscles in the calf that create the power needed to push off with the foot or go up on the toes. The large Achilles tendon connects these muscles to the heel. When you have Achilles tendinitis, the tendon may be painful to touch or to move, the area may be swollen and warm, you may have trouble standing up on one toe, and you may have trouble finding shoes that fit comfortably.”

2. Gout

Gout sounds positively medieval, but it's a thing real people do get. “Gout is actually arthritis that occurs when there is too much uric acid in your blood, therefore it forms sharp crystals in your joints. One of the most common places for this to happen is in your big toe,” Dr. George warns.

3. Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is common, and is the inflammation of the band of tissue along the bottom of your foot.


As Dr. George says, “In this condition, the fascia first becomes irritated and then inflamed, resulting in heel pain. Some of the symptoms that can occur are pain on the bottom of the heel and the arch of the foot, pain that is usually worse upon waking up in the morning.” The pain increases over a period of months, and swelling on the bottom of the heel occurs.

4. Wearing the wrong shoes

Of course, it's not all medical; sometimes we're wearing shoes that hurt because they just don't fit us correctly. Or, they are the wrong shoes for what we are doing. If you wore strappy heels to walk four miles, it could be why your feet hurt so much.

5. Swollen ankles

If your ankles are swollen, due to pregnancy or circulation issues, it's going to make your feet hurt after a while. Try elevating your feet and see if the swelling is relieved. If you continue to have foot pain, it’s best to see a recommended podiatrist and/or orthopedist.

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6. Neuroma

This is an annoying pain that may feel like burning, shooting, stabbing, a rock in between the toes, or varying other types of pain in the ball of the foot.

"The cause is compression of a nerve between the metatarsals, or long bones of the foot. It's treatable with wide, comfortable shoes, cortisone injections, and in more intractable cases, surgery," says Dr. Ernest Isaacson, a podiatrist.

7. Bunions

Bunions are the large bump on the side of the big toe, noticeable in grandma’s shoe or Posh Spice’s heels.

But, says Dr. Isaacson, "Despite the common misconception, this condition is not caused by shoes, rather by genetics, and over 90 percent of those with bunions can identify a family member with the condition. Conservative treatment consists of using wider shoes and anti-inflammatory medicine, which should accommodate the condition adequately for most patients. For those whom all shoes are uncomfortable or quality of life is limited, surgery works quite well, with very good predictable outcomes, very low complication rates, and surprisingly little downtime."


8. Metatarsalgia

Metatarsalgia is, quite simply, pain in the ball of the foot. But what causes it?

"Most commonly, it's seen in patients with a higher arch foot where most of the pressure is on the heel and the ball of the foot. Equal distribution of the pressure on the ball of the foot is initially accomplished with strappings. The use of orthotics with modifications in the forefoot may also be needed for long-term biomechanical control," advises Dr. Alan Bass​, a board-certified podiatrist.

9. Sever's Disease

This is, essentially, heel pain, but it occurs primarily in children who participate in sports.


Says Dr. Bass, Sever's Disease is "caused by an inflammation of the growth plate. This occurs most in children who participate in high-impact sports such as dance, gymnastics, basketball and soccer. This disease is self-limiting in nature, occurring during the participation in sports, but can linger during times when not as active." Luckily, this resolves when the growth plate closes at maturity, normally between ages 14-15.

10. Ingrown toenails

Ingrown toenails are caused when the border of the nail grows into the adjacent skin fold. "Over-aggressive pedicures, trimming toenails too short, and trying to trim the edges of toenails at the corners too aggressively can all cause the nail to get infected and grow further into the fold," warns D. Sean Sweeney, DPM, of Sweeney Foot & Ankle.

To correct an ingrown toenail is a simple in-office procedure, where the toe is numbed and the ingrown portion of the nail is removed. A special acid is then applied to kill the nail root, causing the nail to grow back properly. Relief is immediate.


11. Bone spurs

Bone spurs are a misnomer because, according to Sweeney, "They are the result of years of plantar fasciitis causing stress in the foot and the foot responding to the tension on the heel bone by laying down more bone." Research shows it's not the spur that causes the pain, it's the ligament.

"Bone spurs on the bottom of the heel don't cause pain. A lot of patients get focused on the spur on x-rays and think the spur is causing their pain, but it's the fascial ligament causing their pain, not the spur," Sweeney says. He explains that spurs formed in the back of the heel by the Achilles are different than the ones described above and cause alot of pain. These spurs are aggravated by friction caused by shoes, and have to be fixed via surgery.

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Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her at alywalansky@gmail.com.