Even though most of us will spend a great deal of our lives walking around on them, we can sometimes underestimate our feet and the amount of care that they need, or the problems that can arise from improper care.
Remember that time you ambitiously put on your highest heels before heading out for a night on the town, only to end up barefoot and hobbling home (or to the nearest Uber?) with your heels rubbed raw and blistered?
Or when you couldn’t wait to get your feet in those shiny, brand-new sneakers, and then you just had to road test them at the gym… until they ripped your feet apart and bled all over your previously pristine Jordans?
Whatever the context, everyone will have experienced the pain that an ill-fitting pair of shoes can cause in just a few hours, but did you know that doing so repeatedly could be causing serious, long-term problems?
If you’re worried about the current state of your feet, or you want to prevent future footwear issues, read on. We’ll first outline what proper foot care means, for those who want to better understand this small but important body part.
After that brief explanation, you’ll discover seven key foot abnormalities you may have already experienced – some are easily treated, others more serious, but you’ll also learn how they could have been prevented with some simple shoe knowledge.
What Is Foot Health?
Though simple, and to some, unpleasant in appearance, our feet are surprisingly complicated under the surface. With twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints and over a hundred muscles, ligaments and tendons, there are plenty of parts to consider, each one playing a vital role in supporting our bodies every day.
If you’re a particularly active person, you’ll be putting your feet through their paces anyway, never mind in terms of what shoes you’re wearing. But choosing the right footwear is imperative for maintaining a high quality of foot health.
Enduring the impact of standing, walking, running and all manner of other activities we might embark on in our busy lives is quite a task for healthy, well-looked after feet; without proper shoe support, you can encounter all manner of problems and ailments.
Athlete’s foot, blisters, corns and callouses, nerve damage, nail infections… wearing shoes that are too tight, oversized, narrow or wide can contribute to most of the commonly diagnosed conditions affecting the foot, which can get really nasty if allowed to continue.
When you fail to find shoes that properly fit your feet and provide adequate support, you also leave yourself vulnerable not only to foot injury but problems beyond your feet, as the other parts of your body have to work harder to compensate.
Is There A ‘Foot Doctor’?
Yes, there is! Known as a podiatrist, these healthcare providers have been professionally trained to examine, diagnose and prescribe treatments for abnormalities in the feet and other lower limbs.
Also working to detect, correct and prevent deformity, as well as recuperation to help keep patients mobile and physically active. They also relieve any pain you might be experiencing, whilst treating any infections that might be present.
Advice is freely available at your appointments, too; your podiatrist will happily explain and advise on how you and your family can best take care of your feet, as well as what shoes are best for you all to wear.
Can Ill-fitting Shoes Affect The Health Of Your Feet?
In short: yes, they absolutely can. Unsuitable footwear causes problems for our feet that range from mildly inconvenient to incredibly painful and potentially life-threatening if ignored and left untreated.
Foot pain, conditions and trauma related to ill-fitting shoes in your youth will contribute to increased falls, reduced mobility and a resulting loss of freedom or independence once you’re older, so it’s important to get informed as soon as possible.
From nerve damage, skin conditions, infections, bends and deformities, if your shoes don’t fit right, you’re leaving yourself open to all kinds of trouble, and even encouraging it! But what’s the difference between a pair of shoes that just needs breaking in, and a pair you should never have bought in the first place?
Signs And Symptoms Of Shoes That Don’t Fit Well
So, how can you tell if your shoes are just made to be uncomfortable for anybody who wears them, or if they actually just don’t fit you properly? Here are some key things to look out for in the day to day wearing of your shoes.
1. You Need To Walk Funny
Do you find yourself putting more weight on the sides, front, or heels of your feet when you wear a particular pair of shoes? Perhaps you have to push your toes forward to stop the shoe sliding around, or push your heel back because they’re cramped.
If the way you walk is affected by the pair of shoes you’ve chosen to wear, and this is a recurring problem every time you wear them, it’s likely that they’re not the right size for you, too narrow, or too wide. Stop putting up with ill-fitting shoes!
2. Your Toes Are Poking Through
Most of us would assume that if our toes are protruding out of the sides or the front of our shoes, or crammed so tightly into them that they are visible externally and in danger of pushing out, they aren’t actually the right size or style for our feet.
Unfortunately, this isn’t often a large enough deterrent for some people; women in particular are guilty of wearing heels that their pinky toes poke out of the side of, or spill out over the soles. Stop it! They don’t fit you!
3. Experiencing Consistent Blisters
Anybody who’s had the pleasure of breaking in a new pair of Doc Martens or other similar boots will tell you that unless some kind of miracle occurs, you’re going to get a blister or two whilst your feet stretch out that brand new leather.
If, though, after wearing the shoes multiple times, you’re still ending up with blisters at the end of the day, or your feet never seem to heal from your previous blisters, then it’s likely that your shoes are too tight and you need a bigger size.
4. Needing Specific Socks
Do you find yourself reaching for your thickest, cosiest socks when you wear that specific pair of boots? It might be that they’re too big for you, and you’re trying to fill the gap, or perhaps they’re too tight and you’re hoping to stretch them out.
Regardless of the type of shoe, if there’s a need to match them with a certain kind of socks so that you can wear them, it’s possible they’re ill-fitting and you’re doing damage to your feet.
7 Signs That Your Shoes Are Permanently Damaging Your Feet
Whilst all of the below ailments, conditions and illnesses have a variety of potential root causes, they can all occur as a result of wearing improper, ill-fitting footwear. Some of them sound over complicated at first, but we’ve provided simple and easily digestible definitions, symptoms and potential treatments for your understanding and peace of mind.
Sign 1: Peripheral Neuropathy – Pins And Needles In Your Feet Or Toes
What Is It?
Whilst it might sound like a complicated mouthful, you might recognize one of the major symptoms: pins and needles. That isn’t to say that every time your foot goes numb and you’re overcome with that familiar tingle you should panic and diagnose yourself with nerve damage, so don’t worry.
The network of nerves composing our peripheral nervous system lies just outside that of the brain and spinal cord (also referred to as the central nervous system) and features several individual nerves with different functions.
Sensory nerves carry sensations, helping us to recognise pain and touch, whilst motor nerves control our muscles, automatic nerves power the body’s inherent functions, like the bladder and blood pressure.
What Are The Symptoms?
When nerves in your feet and toes are damaged, you can experience a numbness or tingling in your feet, as well burning, shooting or stabbing sensations, imbalance and loss of coordination, or muscle weakness. You might also have a cut or an ulcer on your foot that doesn’t seem to be healing.
Patients with peripheral neuropathy usually suffer from these symptoms constantly, but they may come intermittently, and it is especially common in adults over the age of 55 and people with diabetes.
Shoes that are too tight or otherwise ill-fitting can cause physical injury to the nerves, which leads to the symptoms of PN, but it can also be caused by viral infections or come as a side effect of consuming large quantities of alcohol or certain kinds of medicine.
How Is It Treated?
Treatments you will be offered are dependant on the symptoms experienced, their severity and the root or underlying cause. Of course, if it’s your shoes that are damaging your nerves, you’ll need to stop wearing them, but we assume you’ve figured that out now.
If particularly difficult to bear, your nerve pain may be managed with prescribed neuropathic medicines called pain agents, as patients tend to report that standard pills often aren’t strong enough to do the job.
Sign 2: Plantar Fasciitis & Foot Pain – Sharp Or Dull Pain Continuing In Your Feet
What Is It?
Yet another complicated sounding condition that is deceptively simple, Plantar Fasciitis (pronounced PLAN-tur fas-ee-eye-tis) basically refers to inflammation of the plantar fascia, a thick tissue that spans the bottom of your foot, connecting the heel bone and the toes.
Shaped like the string of a bow, its purpose is to support the arches of your feet, whilst absorbing the shock of impact when you walk. Should the tension of this support become too great, small rips and tears can occur.
Recurring tearing and stretching of the fascia cause it to inflame, resulting in this unpleasant ailment – it is difficult to determine exactly what the primary cause is, as there are several contributing factors, but wearing the wrong shoes certainly won’t be helping.
What Are The Symptoms?
A frequent ailment in runners, but also common amongst those who wear shoes without enough support, as well as those who are overweight, as you put pressure onto the aggravated tissue, you experience a sharp stabbing pain in the bottom of your foot.
It usually occurs at it’s worst when you hop out of bed (or gently tiptoe, grimacing) and take your first steps of the day; as you carry on moving around, it normally decreases in intensity, which can make it easy to ignore.
Long periods of standing around or sitting for a while and then getting up again can trigger the sharp pains again, though, and it will be most painful after you have experienced, rather than during.
Putting up with plantar fasciitis and hoping it will heal on its own could result in long-lasting, chronic heel pain that prevents you from continuing to follow your usual routine and require changes to your lifestyle.
Trying to ease your pain by adjusting the way you walk to avoid putting any pressure on the affected area is an easy way to cause yourself further problems with your feet, and could also lead to issues with your knees, hip and back.
How Is It Treated?
Should you go to your doctor and be diagnosed with tissue damage, there are several recommendations they might make. Resting your foot wherever possible is encouraged, by raising your leg and propping the foot up on a cushion or stool.
For pain management, you can use an icepack, or if you don’t have one of those to hands, the classic bag of frozen peas will suffice, wrapped in a towel and placed on the painful area for no more than twenty minutes every couple of hours. Over the counter, meds like Tylenol or Asprin can also be used for relief.
Of course, we’re talking about shoes here, and you’re going to want to wear some low heeled, soft-soled, wide shoes that are gentle on your sore foot, potentially picking up some insoles or heel pads for extra support.
Under no circumstances should you be wearing high heels or tight pointy shoes – it may sound obvious to you, but people still do it! – and you should avoid sandals or backless slippers, as they don’t provide enough arch support.
Regular, careful stretches and gentle exercise that avoids putting any pressure on your feet, like swimming, are recommended; walking and standing for long periods should be avoided, especially on hard surfaces.
Sign 3: Ingrown Toenails – Swollen, Infected Or Bleeding Nailbeds
What is it?
When the corner or edge of your nail begins to grow into the surrounding skin of the toe itself, it’s known as ‘ingrown’; this usually occurs in the big toe, but any of your little piggies can fall victim.
Usually caused by wearing tight shoes, cutting your nails short or at an angle, and other potential trauma to the nail, like stubbing your toes, it’s pretty common amongst men and women alike, and easily happens.
What Are The Symptoms?
Your toe itself could be red in colour, swollen and painful to touch or walk on. The nail may begin to curve around as it grows, which further increases the pain and swelling, as well as opening yourself up to bacteria.
Should you begin to feel hot or shivery, or see pus coming from the toe, it’s possible that the ingrown nail has caused an infection, which is more serious and requires treatment as soon as possible.
How Is It Treated?
Your doctor will encourage you to treat the toe at home before opting for anything more serious, like removal. Soaking your foot in warm water three to four times daily for a couple of days can help soften the skin around the nail and prevent further growth.
Keeping your feet dry otherwise, wearing your comfiest, widest and most supportive shoes and using painkillers to manage your symptoms are all other ways you can ease yourself through ingrown nail recovery.
You should not try and cut the toe yourself, pick at the nail or your surrounding skin, and avoid tight, compressing or pointy shoes at all costs, as doing so will only aggravate or leave you more susceptible to infection.
Should these at-home treatments fail to achieve any improvements or you have the signs of infection – an incredibly painful, swollen toe with pus, a high temperature, and fluctuating between hot and shivery – you should seek further medical assistance.
At worst, your doctor will give you antibiotics to treat the infection, and if the toenail is ingrown badly, they may refer you to a podiatrist, who could cut away part or all of the nail if they deem it necessary. Don’t worry, you’ll have some anaesthetic to numb the toe, first!
Sign 4: Bunions – Angled Toes And Swollen Feet Bones
What Is It?
As you get older, it’s more likely you will be found complaining about your bunions. These hard, bony lumps that form on the sides of your feet, at the joint on the base of your big toe, occur when bones in the front part of your foot are forced out of place.
The tip of your big toe is then pulled inwards, toward your smaller toes, which causes the joint at the base of your big toe to protrude outward through the skin, creating the appearance of a solid lump, which might be red and sore.
No primary or root cause of bunions has been outlined, and it is unclear if there are preventative measures you can take, but wearing the wrong sized shoes and forcing your toes into cramped positions are likely suspects.
What Are The Symptoms?
Most noticeable is the bulging, prominent bump usually located at the base of your big toe – smaller bunions, or bunionettes (how cute? not!) can also form on the joints of your little toes.
Other signs include swelling and redness of the joint and surrounding area, as well as soreness and general pain in your feet, and your big toe appearing to shift and point towards your other toes as opposed to upwards and outwards.
Pain can be frequent, consistent or intermittent, and you might have limited movement of the affected toe. Corns and calluses (we’ll get to those later) can also develop as a result of friction when your first and second toes rub together in your shoes.
How Do You Treat It?
Though these pesky blighters can only be removed through surgery, there are plenty of other things you can do to soothe the pain in the meantime. Doctors will recommend trying bunion pads, which are soft and placed inside your shoes to prevent rubbing, available from pharmacies.
You can also use an ice pack or other frozen pain relief (so long as it is wrapped in a towel!) by carefully holding it against the bunion at five minute intervals, as well as taking over-the-counter pain relief to help with the discomfort.
Returning to the doctor is necessary if your pain continues unaffected after trying out home treatments and remedies for a few weeks, the bunions appear to have worsened, or if the pain is so intense that it prevents you from continuing with normal day to day life.
A visit to a podiatrist could help with advice for buying or commissioning specially made orthotic insoles, toe spacers or splints which provide extra support and can prevent further friction.
An operation on your bunions will not be performed for solely cosmetic reasons, so if your biggest symptom is self-consciousness or a desire to improve the aesthetic appearance of your feet, don’t bother.
This is the only way to truly remove bunions, but the surgery has a lengthy recovery period, and you’ll need to stay off your feet as much as you can for two weeks at least once it’s done.
You’ll also need up to twelve weeks off work, have to avoid driving for a month or two, and sports won’t be an option for up to half a year depending on the severity of your condition and the success of the treatment.
Following your operation, it might be that your toes are weaker than before, or stiffer, and they may not sit in perfect alignment with each other. It’s possible your toes will still need the extra room, so those wide, comfortable shoes will be your go-to for the foreseeable, unfortunately.
Sign 5: Hammer Toes – Toes That Sit Above Or Below Each Other
What Is It?
Most commonly experienced as a deformity in your second, third and fourth toe, this condition is typically caused when you wear shoes that are narrow and offer little in the way of arch support, if any at all.
As a result of imbalances in the surrounding tendons, muscles and ligaments responsible for holding your toe in place, abnormal bends in the middle joint cause it to appear misshapen and curves downwards, resembling a hammer – hence the name!
Your toe’s surrounding muscles work together to bend and re-straighten as you move it, and if one of them becomes weak, it can’t do its job properly, which means the other muscles can’t either. Susceptibility increases if you stub or break your toe, or you live with diabetes or arthritis.
Unfortunately, because ladies are more likely to wear shoes that compress the feet, like heels, it’s women who experience hammer toe more often than not, but that doesn’t mean everyone else can relax.
What Are The Symptoms?
It will probably already be apparent if you can diagnose yourself with a hammer toe, as most of the symptoms are visual – the distinct, tool-like appearance that we described above is the first thing to look out for.
Pain when moving the affected foot or wearing shoes, swelling and redness, or burning sensations are common in sufferers, as is an ability to straighten the toe out fully. In the worst scenarios, you might even develop open wounds.
As it is a progressive condition, hammer toe will only worsen the longer you leave it, and if not properly treated, your toe’s joint may become permanently fixed in it’s bent state, requiring surgery to fix it.
How Do You Treat It?
For symptom relief, it is advised to wear shoes that fit correctly, and avoid heels or other tight shoes. If your toe is still mobile and moveable, you can use a support or splint to hold it straight during the day, which may help, as well as protective pads over the affected area.
Should things fail to return to normal on their own, you may need surgery to release the tendons that aren’t functioning correctly and causing a bent joint. The surgeon may also need to excise the joint and try to fuse it together manually.
Both operations require immobilising the toe and holding it straight with a metal wire for between four and six weeks, depending on the severity of your condition, during which time you may not be able to drive.
Sign 6: Claw Toes – Toes That Are Bent At A Sharper Angle Than Normal
What Is It?
Claw foot, otherwise referred to as claw toes, is pretty straightforward: the toe joint nearest to the ankle bends upwards, whilst the other toes bend downwards, creating a fixed contracture.
In layman’sdoesn’t terms, this means your toes are bent into a position that looks like a bird’s claw. This can be a defect present from birth, or occur later in life as a result of traumatic injuries, other abnormalities like flat feet, or even brain and neurological disorders.
What Are The Symptoms?
The first and most obvious sign of this ailment is of course, the visible bending. Whether this is extension, when the toes bend upwards from the joints at the ball of the foot, or flexion, when they bend downwards towards the soles of your feet, it’s pretty obvious when your toes aren’t where they should be.
Claw toes themselves can also cause further painful symptoms, like the development of corns or calluses on top of and underneath the toes or on the balls of your feet, which are also unpleasant and sore.
How Is It Treated?
Whilst cases of claw toes are not necessarily serious, diagnostic tests may be performed by your doctor in order to rule out the other more serious underlying issues, neurological or neuropathic, that could be causing the deformity to occur.
Claw toes are flexible in the beginning, but will begin to harden and fix into their disjointed position over time – if you catch it at an early stage, your doctor will recommend non-surgical treatments to correct the problem first.
Splits and tapes can be used to hold the toes in their correct position; wearing spacious, wide shoes and avoiding tight, pointy heels (are you sensing a theme in this article?) will help to prevent further deformities and keep pain at bay.
Gently stretching your toes and toe joints towards their correct positions with your hands and performing toe exercises, like trying to pick up a crumpled towel or a marble off of the ground, can also encourage them to fall back in line.
Later-stage claw toe doens’t necessarily mean surgery straight away, as you can first try specialist shoes with in-depth toe boxes, or pads to redistribute the weight and relieve the balls of your feet of any unnecessary pressure.
If all else fails, a procedure to correct the deformity may be your only option: your doctor will decide whether rerouting tendons to the toes will resolve the issue, but long-term, rigid deformities may not be correctable and could result in a toe fusion.
Sign 7: Blisters, Corns Or Calluses – Rough Skin Patches Occurring From Friction
All three of the above ailments are a result of friction causing problems for the skin of your feet, but each of them is different and requires a specific treatment to fix. Ready to learn more?
Though they will heal on their own within a week, and you won’t need to consult anybody for treatment, these suckers can be awfully unpleasant and painful, especially once they have popped.
Caused by wearing ill-fitting shoes that rub and irritate the skin of the feet, you might be tempted to burst these small pockets of clear fluid that gather under a layer of skin, but you need to leave them alone!
For pain relief, it’s advised that you use an ice pack (failing that, a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a dishcloth or towel will suffice) and rest it on the blister for up to thirty minutes.
Do And Do Nots For Treatment
- ✓ If a blister looks likely to burst, protect it with a soft bandage or band-aid
- ✓ Always wash your hands before you touch a burst blister, to prevent infection
- ✓ Once burst, allow all of the fluid to drain from the pocket of skin before dressing with a bandage or band-aid
- ✘ You should aim to touch the blister as little as possible
- ✘ Do not peel away the skin after a blister has burst
- ✘ Once a blister begins to heal, don’t pick at it! Or the edges of the surrounding skin
- ✘ Avoid wearing whatever caused the blister(s) until it is healed.
Corns And Calluses
Whilst these hard, thick areas of skin can develop all over your feet and toes, it’s also possible to get them on your hands, too, but we’re talking about shoe-related problems today.
Corns refer specifically to small, hard lumps of skin, reminiscent of bunions but not involving any bone, that tend to form on the top of your feet. Calluses are larger patches of rough skin that are usually found on your soles.
Both can be tender to walk on and painful to touch, but it’s usually nothing serious, and there are several things you can try to treat at home, as it’s possible to get rid of and prevent corns and calluses without medical intervention.
Do and Do Not’s For Treatment
- ✓ Try to wear your thickest socks, offering the most cushioning and support
- ✓ You should opt for wide, low heeled shoes with a soft, comfortable sole – if they’re rubbing, take them off and don’t wear them again!
- ✓ Soft insoles and heel pads can be purchased to provide every day relief
- ✓ Soaking your feet in warm water on a regular basis can help to soften corns and calluses
- ✓ Using a hard pumice stone, foot file or scrub often can also remove excess hard skin, and moisturising often will keep them as soft as possible
- ✘ Never try to remove your corns or calluses by cutting
- ✘ Avoid walking for long periods of time or standing around unnecessarily
- ✘ Do not wear high heels or tight, pointy footwear
- ✘ You should try not to go barefoot where possible
So, that’s it – the seven signs that indicate your shoes are damaging your feet, and could be doing so permanently. We do have one more thing to talk about, though, and we’ve saved it for last, as it’s perhaps the most unpleasant to think about.
Perhaps the most commonly recognised ailment in feet, this is an unpleasant fungal infection which causes itchy white patches between toes, cracked and bleeding skin, and red, sore or flaky patches on the feet.
Poorly fitting shoes can cause Athlete’s Foot as, when they are too tight, or you’re forced to wear thick socks to keep a pair that is too big feeling secure, your feet sweat and become the ideal environment for bacteria.
It can also affect the soles and sides of your feet, and at it’s worst will spread to your toenails, triggering a fungal nail infection, which is likely if the condition remains treated. Fluid-filled blisters are another fun side effect, and all of these are unlikely to go away until you treat them.
Luckily, you can buy antifungal sprays, creams and powders from your local pharmacy, usually without a prescription. Be mindful that not all of them are suitable for general use, as, for instance, some are only to be used by adults.
Dos And Do Nots For Treatment
- ✓ Wear clean socks every day, preferably cotton.
- ✓ Take your shoes off when you’re at home.
- ✓ Thoroughly dry your feet when you’ve washed them, taking particular care in between your toes.
- ✓A good technique to remember is dab, rather than rub, as you don’t want to aggravate the fragile skin.
- ✓ Use a separate towel for your feet that you wash on a regular basis.
- ✘ Avoid scratching affected areas, as this can cause the infection to spread to other areas of your body.
- ✘ Never go barefoot – wear sandals in public changing rooms or showers.
- ✘ Wear different shoes as often as you can, trying not to wear the same pair two days in a row.
- ✘ Always use your own towels, socks and shoes, remembering not to share with others.
- ✘ Do not wear shoes that you know will make your feet sweaty and warm, as this is the perfect breeding ground for the infection.
Measuring Your Feet
To try and minimise as many shoe-related foot abnormalities as possible, it’s always worth having your feet measured at a shoe store, by a podiatrist, or, if you’re stuck for time, by yourself at home.
Whilst it’s certainly possible to get the measuring tape out and try to figure out what size shoe you should be wearing, it is difficult to get an accurate reading from your own feet, so asking someone to help is recommended.
Having your feet professionally measured might sound like an awkward and uncomfortable experience, but for ten minutes of discomfort whilst a stranger touches your toes, you could save yourself a lifetime of pain.
Someone experienced in foot care and shoes in general can also give you specific advice for your feet, helping you to discover not just what size you should be wearing, but also what style is best for you, and how you can prevent further problems later on.