Whether you’re a runner, a lounger, or a high-heel lover, foot pain can really mess with your mobility. Podiatrists address what might be ailing those feet.

By Jennifer Benjamin
Updated June 09, 2021
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Foot fatigue, aching, and discomfort are a common complaint among people of all ages, especially for adults and anyone working long hours on their feet (or who wears less-than-ergonomic footwear). What's more, during work-from-home life, your slippered feet may not have seen much wear and tear. As you resume your workout routine and crack open that shoe collection, you may be noticing odd aches that make it hurt just to walk around. And once that dull, temporary discomfort progresses into real pain-whether it's on the top or the arch of your foot, the toes, or the ankles-it might be time to see a specialist, such as a podiatrist (foot doctor), to help pinpoint the precise cause of pain and figure out a proper treatment plan.

"Foot pain can be debilitating, affecting every aspect of life," says Albert Nejat, DPM, a podiatrist and foot surgeon in Los Angeles. "Fortunately, most foot pains can be addressed with simple measures, like changing habits, doing stretches, wearing different shoes, and altering your training practices." 

Again, while some simple end-of-day TLC can help soothe those overworked feet, you'll want to see a podiatrist for lingering pains. Considering foot pain is so prevalent, we asked experts to address the most common nagging feet woes-from potential causes of foot pain to helpful remedies.

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Pain on Top of Your Foot

Most often, aches in this area are due to bone trauma like stress fractures, caused by repetitive and/or excessive stress on the bone-and often running (or doing other high-impact activity) in ill-fitting shoes. "You'll need an evaluation and X-ray, as well as immobilization in order to treat it," explains Jane Andersen, DPM, DABFAS, a podiatrist from Chapel Hill, N.C. When Dr. Andersen says immobilization, she really means it: Stress fractures can take anywhere from four to eight weeks to heal, during which time, you'll need to be disciplined about letting it recuperate (i.e., stop running and even limit walking to what's absolutely necessary).

Pain on the top of the foot may also indicate a bone spur. "A bony prominence can get irritated by ill-fitting shoes putting pressure on that area," Dr. Nejat says. "You can simply change the way your shoelaces are threaded so it avoids the bump, and doesn't put additional strain on it." Cortisone injections and anti-inflammatories can help reduce pain in the meantime.

Another common foot pain cause is tendinitis, often the result of an increase in uphill walking or running. Again, experts suggest altering your workout to alleviate the stress on those tendons (resting and icing the area can help, too), but if it becomes more persistent, you may need a firm orthotic, topical anti-inflammatory, and possibly occasional cortisone injections.

Pain in the Ball of Your Foot

Also known as metatarsalgia, this kind of foot pain has a variety of causes. "Skin concerns like warts and calluses can create superficial irritation and pain, especially since you're consistently putting weight and pressure on that part of your foot," Dr. Andersen explains. "Pain in the tissues themselves can be treated with shoes that have both extra support and cushioning, orthotics, as well as simple calf stretches."

If you're a dancer, you may be suffering from sesamoiditis, an inflammation in the two bean-shaped bones under the big toe joint. "A simple 'dancer's pad' can help reduce the weight-bearing pressure on the area," says Dr. Nejat. He also points out that pain in the ball of the foot may be an indicator of rheumatoid arthritis, which often affects the joint at the base of the toes.

Other possible causes of ball-of-the-foot pain, all of which should be seen to by a doctor: 

Neuromas: a benign growth of nerve tissues that can become painfully inflamed from pressure on the nerve bundle in the underside of the foot, usually between two adjacent metatarsal bones. It can feel like a shooting pain in the ball of the foot, often between the third, fourth, and pinky toes. (Wearing narrow shoes or shoes with high heels typically exacerbates it.)

Bursitis: an irritation in the bursa sac-a fluid-filled, cushion-like barrier between tissues and bone. "It can occur when you have a genetically enlarged heel bone," says Marlene Reid, a podiatric surgeon in Naperville, Ill. "It's often called 'pump bump' because the bone can become irritated from wearing a shoe like a pump with a stiff back." When the unforgiving shoe rubs against the bone, you can inflame the bursa, the protective sac of fluid in the tissue.

Plantar plate tears: a tear in the thick, protective ligament that runs along the ball of the foot, connecting to the joints.

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Pain in the Arch of Your Foot

Plantar fasciitis is most often the culprit with arch ailments, and it's an irritation in the thick band of tissue that attaches the base of the toes to the bottom of the heel. People with all arch types―high, medium, or low―can be prone to this type of irritation. "It tends to be due to overuse and hyper-pronation or, simply put, flat-footed walking," Dr. Nejat says. "Calf stretching and orthotic arch supports are very effective in alleviating this." If you're struggling with plantar fasciitis, you may also want to avoid walking around barefoot-get a pair of supportive slippers to wear the house.

Another condition known as posterior tibial tendinitis starts at the foot arch but can quickly lead to pain in the ankle as well. "If it persists, it can go on to rupture that tendon and lead to adult onset flat foot, which is very disabling," warns Dr. Nejat. Again, you'll likely need to be fitted with orthotics to nip this problem in the bud.

Pain in Your Big Toe

Seeing a protrusion at the base of your big toe? That's a bunion and it can create a lot of pain, especially if you're still trying to strut around in your regular shoes through the pain. Bunion sufferers, listen up: "You'll need wider shoes, as well as orthotics, to prevent or at least slow down the further progression of the bunion," explains Dr. Nejat. "In more painful circumstances, you can opt to do surgery." He performs a new procedure known as Lapiplasty, a 3D bunion correction that decreases the chance of a recurrence. If there's no bunion but you still have big toe problems, it could be an ingrown toenail. This often occurs when the nail edge grows sideways into the skin of the toe. The pressure on the nail jabs into the surrounding skin, causing discomfort. Wearing shoes that are too tight or too narrow can exacerbate the problem, as can cutting your toenails incorrectly, which you can typically soothe with a foot bath. However, if the pain persists, you'll want to see a podiatrist to rule out infection. 

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Pain Around the Sides or Bottom of Your Foot

If the perimeter of your foot is feeling the pain-meaning either the inside or outside of the feet or the back of the heel are aching-it's likely arthritis, tendonitis, or bursitis. "These inflammations are best treated by a doctor who can evaluate the cause and provide proper treatment, whether that's orthotics, medications, shots, or even surgery," Dr. Andersen says. Regardless of where you're feeling the pain, don't let the malady persist; a quick trip to the podiatrist can identify the cause and help you, ahem, get back on your feet even faster, and before anything more serious develops.