How to keep those tootsies in top shape
It’s easy to take our feet for granted—especially in our younger years—but as we get older, they can be just one more source of discomfort and pain as ligaments slacken and muscles lose their elasticity.
A 2016 study reported in U.S. News & World Report found that foot pain affects 1 in 4 adults after age 45. In at least two-thirds of those cases, that pain can be debilitating. And that can be dangerous: U.S. News also reports that foot pain in older adults is associated with a 62 percent increased risk of recurrent falls, according to a study in a 2017 issue of Gerontology.
Here are a few things to look out for—and get ahead of—as your feet enter their 50s and beyond.
What it is: “One thing that we see a lot in older folks is plantar fasciitis,” says Dr. Steven Lam of Capital Region Foot Care in Albany. As we get older, we lose tightness in the muscles of our feet and the fascia, a ligament located at the bottom of the foot, can become more easily inflamed. You might experience this as heel pain or arch pain, which are the early signs of plantar fasciitis.
What to do: Stretch, stretch, stretch. “You can easily take care of plantar fasciitis discomfort by stretching,” Lam says. Grab your toes, for example, and pull them up. While sitting on a chair, step your foot onto a water bottle or a foam roller (or anything else firm and cylindrical) and roll your foot back and forth on top of it. For particularly uncomfortable days, a frozen water bottle or soda can may provide even more relief and help reduce swelling.
What it is: A bunion may look and feel like a growth, but it’s actually the result of your bones migrating inward. “Bunions are a progressive disorder,” says Lam. “The big toe starts to drive closer to the second toe, then the bone behind it starts to drive in the opposite direction.” That can cause an uncomfortable protrusion on the inner side of your foot that’s easily irritated by tight or ill-fitting shoes.
What to do: Bunions can be genetic and they can also result from certain types of shoes or foot gear. Dress shoes can exacerbate things, as can shoes that aren’t wide enough. “Our feet tend to swell by the end of the day,” Lam says. “So shoes that fit earlier in the day may not fit anymore by 3, 4, 5 in the afternoon.” So make sure your shoes fit you well, and offer a little room for longer days on your feet.
“In some instances, bunions can be painful enough that they require surgical removal,” Lam says. If that sounds familiar, it might be a good idea to consult your doctor or podiatrist.
What it is: While people of all ages may have to contend with an ingrown nail at some point in their lives, older people are more prone to them. Caused by snug-fitting shoes or trauma (say you stub your toe in the middle of the night, sending your nail digging into the skin of your toe), ingrown nails can be quite painful and difficult to treat on your own, especially because toenails grow thicker as we age, and bending down to tend to them may be more difficult for some.
What to do: Routine hygiene of your feet—cleaning and nail-trimming—is key to prevention. Don’t cut your toenails in a curve; cut them straight across. Again, wear shoes that fit and wear the proper footwear for the proper activity. Athletes, particularly runners, should keep their nails short.
What they are: Thicker patches on the soles and sides of your feet may become tough and uncomfortable as we age.
What to do: Keeping your feet clean and using a pumice stone to wear down calluses are reliable ways of minimizing discomfort from calluses. But Lam says sometimes they can grow thick enough that you’ll need medical intervention. “Take care of your nails monthly,” says Lam. “Look at the bottoms of your feet periodically to make sure no calluses have built up. If you notice anything strange or uncomfortable, you should probably consult your podiatrist.”
So how often should you see a podiatrist? Dr. Lam says lots of people, particularly ones who are active and on their feet regularly, likely won’t need to check in very much with a podiatrist—unless they have one or more of the chronic issues mentioned above. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, also might require more frequent checkups.
Mainly, though, good foot hygiene, stretching and the right shoes will go a long way.
And, by the way, Lam recommends against those trendy “foot masks” that can cause dramatic skin peeling when used on feet. “You have to be really careful with those,” he says. “They’re chemicals that are built to take off the outer layers of your skin. If not applied appropriately or applied too long, they can cause minor burning. Plus, if you remove a lot of those outer layers it’s easier to get irritation [such as] blistering and things like that.”
“There’s nothing wrong with applying lotion to the feet at night. Use a pumice stone a couple times a week and very rarely will you need a peel like that,” he adds. “That’s more of a fad than anything.”
Woman stretching photo, iStockphoto.com/Ridofranz. Foot illustrations by Tony Pallone/source art from iStockphoto.com/3xy.