Definition & Overview

The feet are one of the most complex structures in the human body next to the brain. Aside from having 26 bones, which represent a quarter of the bones in the entire body, they also have over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, and 33 joints. With this complexity and the pressure that feet often go under, it’s not difficult to imagine exactly how prone they are to a wide variety of problems.

Everybody, at some point in life, will experience at least one type of foot problem. Many will experience acute or chronic foot problems that vary in severity. Some problems are serious, while others involve only the skin and are mostly minor.

Regardless of the severity of a foot problem, it’s imperative that treatment is immediately provided to prevent it from worsening. Even minor foot problems can affect a person’s mobility while severe problems can affect the person’s overall health.

There are many different foot problems, but some of the most common are:

  • Anterior Achilles tendon bursitis
  • Posterior Achilles tendon bursitis
  • Tibialis posterior tendinosis and tenosynovitis
  • Metatarsalgia
  • Freigberg disease
  • Interdigital neuralgia
  • Hammertoe deformity
  • Bunion

Most foot problems cause some degree of pain, but there are some that are not accompanied by pain nor any other symptoms. For instance, peripheral edema is characterized by swelling of one or both feet due to fluid buildup. Non-pitting edema (applying pressure does not cause an indentation on the skin) is generally painless but may result in a variety of complications.

Many foot problems are limited to the affected foot, but there are those that are just a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as liver, heart, or kidney failure. Diabetes is also known to cause foot problems.

Cause of Condition

Diseases, infections, and injuries are some of the most common causes of foot problems. Diseases and infections will usually affect the skin, muscles, and tendons, while injuries may also affect the bones. However, some diseases like arthritis, can also affect the bones. In fact, it can cause permanent foot deformity.

The majority of foot problems are painful and some of the common problems that are accompanied with pain as a symptom are:

  • Broken bones
  • Gout
  • Achilles tendinitis
  • Corns and calluses
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Tumours
  • Stress fractures
  • Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Ingrown Toenails

Some foot problems are not caused by an injury, disease, or infection. In some cases, improper footwear can be the primary cause. For instance, incorrect shoe sizes or high heels are known to cause foot problems that are painful.

Key Symptoms

The symptoms of a foot problem will vary according to the type of the problem. For instance, a hammertoe is described by the shortening of the tendons and the key symptom is an enlarged toe knuckle. Bunions, on the other hand, occur when joints in the big toe become swollen. The key symptoms are enlarged and tender joints. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling sensation

If a foot problem is caused by a problem with the lower back, then some of the most common symptoms are foot heaviness or weakness, walking difficulties (especially when walking on tiptoes), and restricted foot movement.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

If you experience a foot problem, the first person you need to see is your family doctor or your primary care physician. Your doctor will be able to assess the situation and provide treatment, or refer you to a specialist, especially if the problem is caused by an underlying medical condition, such as cancer and kidney or heart diseases. If you are referred to a specialist, it is likely that the foot problem is a symptom and not the underlying condition. Treatment will involve providing a cure for the underlying condition, which would eventually result in solving the foot problem if the treatment is successful.

Prior to providing treatment for a foot problem, the doctor will need to provide an accurate diagnosis. To do this, several diagnostic procedures and exams, such as an x-ray, blood tests, or an MRI or CT scan, will be performed. Once an accurate diagnosis of your condition has been completed, the doctor will formulate a treatment plan. Minor foot problems can be treated by medications. Some may even be treated with rest and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

However, more serious conditions (especially those that involve the skeletal structure of the foot) will require surgery. Surgery can be performed to correct muscle or tendon tears or bone fractures. Surgery will also be required if the foot has been badly damaged or infected. If there is a risk that the infection may spread to other body parts, or that the foot has been damaged beyond repair, amputation could be considered.

Some of the most common foot problems that require surgery are:

  • Bunions – surgical procedure is called an osteotomy, which is to straighten the big toe and metatarsals

  • Hammertoes – surgical procedure may either be an arthroplasty or arthrodesis

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis – the surgical procedure commonly used in the treatment of this condition is called a metatarsal surgery

  • Achilles Tendon Disorders – Surgery will be required to repair the tendon

  • Morton’s neuroma – this condition is characterized by painful nerves, which would require surgery to remove them.

Sports are also a common cause of foot problems. Sports injuries that affect the feet may be minor or serious. Minor sports injuries are usually treated by resting the foot. Ice is often used to control the swelling. However, a foot injury incurred through sports should always be examined closely. In fact, many minor sports injuries require diagnostic procedures, such as an x-ray to determine the extent of the injury. It is only then will the doctor be able to determine if medications or surgery will be required to treat the foot problem.

References:

  • Koenig MD. Ligament injuries. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:section C.

  • Baer GS, Keene JS. Tendon injuries of the foot and ankle. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:section D.

  • Brodsky JW, Bruck N. Stress fractures of the foot and ankle. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:section E.

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