What Feet Say About Your Health: 4 Common Disorders

If you have foot pain or numbness and haven’t squeezed yourself into uncomfortable shoes or experienced an injury, you may be unsure of the cause. The answer may surprise you: Certain chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, can cause a host of symptoms throughout the body, including the feet. For this reason, podiatrists can learn about their patients’ overall health just by studying their feet.

The basic foot exam can inform us about many conditions, says Dr. Nicole Brouyette, a podiatrist, board-certified senior staff physician and foot-and-ankle surgeon at Henry Ford Health System. “We can find out a lot during an office visit just by talking to patients about their feet.”

These four conditions can cause foot problems as people age:

Number 1Poor circulation

Are your feet constantly cold? Do you experience tingling, cramping or swelling? Do the problems worsen the more you move about? Poor circulation may be to blame.

“We always ask our patients how far they can walk,” Dr. Brouyette says. “Usually, if they can only walk one block or less before they need to take a rest, that is a sign of blockages in your vessels, which can decrease the oxygen supply to your muscles.”

A common cause of poor circulation is the buildup of waxy cholesterol within the blood vessels. High cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and smoking can make the problem worse. Severe cases may lead to gangrene, or dead tissue, but changing your lifestyle habits can help. Quitting smoking and eating healthily are keys.

“It can definitely be helped – specifically with diet control,” Dr. Brouyette says.

Number 2Arthritis

If your foot or ankle joints hurt when you move, and your range of motion is limited, you may have arthritis.

“By the time you’re 65, the joint of your big toe is often the first joint in the foot to break down,” Dr. Brouyette says.

You may be inclined to stay off your feet but staying active can improve arthritis symptoms. If you’re in too much pain to be active, ask your podiatrist if physical therapy could help.

“The more active you are, the more range of motion you give your joints,” Dr. Brouyette says. “The pain is significantly better because you're constantly moving those joints.”

Your doctor may prescribe steroid injections to decrease pain and inflammation or fit you with orthotics to help stabilize sore joints.

Number 3Diabetes

Many people with poorly controlled diabetes experience nerve-related damage in their feet.

When you can’t feel your feet, you may injure yourself without knowing it, then continue on without treating the problem, which can lead to serious injuries such as foot ulcers. Imagine a large pebble getting into your shoe without your knowledge. You might walk around for hours before discovering the problem, until the pebble embeds in your skin. If you experience less sensation in your feet, see your podiatrist before problems arise.

“We try to advocate good foot health,” Dr. Brouyette says, “which entails checking your feet every day, making sure your feet stay dry. If you do step on something, see a doctor immediately.”

Controlling your blood sugar levels through diet and exercise can improve diabetic foot health.

Number 4Thyroid disease

Foot problems caused by thyroid disease are less common than issues caused by poor circulation, diabetes or arthritis. But thyroid disease sometimes causes foot swelling, muscle pain and pinched nerves.

“If I can’t figure out a diagnosis, that’s when I will do a lab panel,” Dr. Brouyette says. “Thyroid is one of those things you do have to include.”

If your foot pain is linked to thyroid disease, controlling the disease reverses the symptoms.

“Make sure your thyroid-stimulating hormone levels are within the normal range, because when you get out of the range, that’s when you start to see issues,” Dr. Brouyette says. “A lot of the times, the symptoms will resolve on their own.”


Try ThisThe next time you're at the doctor's office, take off your shoes and socks as a reminder to check your feet.

Categories: Get Healthy

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