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Foot pain

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An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of foot pain.

Alternative Names

Bunions; Corns; Hammertoe; Plantar fasciitis; Tarsal tunnel syndrome; Flat feet


  • The foot is a complex structure of 26 bones and 33 joints, layered with an intertwining web of more than 120 muscles, ligaments, and nerves.
  • Nearly all cases of foot pain can be attributed to one of the following:
    • Ill-fitting shoes
    • High-impact exercise
    • Certain medical conditions.
  • About 75% of people in the United States have foot pain.
  • Women are at higher risk than men for severe foot pain.
  • The American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society strongly advises against cosmetic foot surgery, urging consumers to carefully consider the relative risks and benefits of undergoing unnecessary surgical procedures.

Medical Conditions Causing Foot Pain

  • Arthritis
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Medications
  • Diabetes is an important cause of serious foot disorders.
  • Women are at higher risk for stress fractures than men.
  • The acronym RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation -- the four basic elements of initial treatment for an injured foot.
  • For severe conditions, such as fallen arches or structural problems that cause imbalance, health care providers may need to prescribe custom orthotics, which are insoles produced to fit the patient's foot.
  • Don't ignore foot pain. It is not normal. It is critical that people with diabetes see a podiatrist (foot doctor) at least once a year for a checkup.
  • Alternate shoes. Don't wear the same pair of shoes every day.
  • Avoid walking barefoot, which increases the risk for injury and infection.
  • At the beach or when wearing sandals, always use sunblock on your feet, as you would on the rest of your body.


Foot pain is very common.

About 75% of people in the United States have foot pain at some time in their lives. Most foot pain is caused by shoes that do not fit properly or that force the feet into unnatural shapes (such as pointed-toe, high-heeled shoes).

The foot is a complex structure of 26 bones and 33 joints, layered with an intertwining web of more than 120 muscles, ligaments, and nerves. It serves the following functions:

  • Supports weight
  • Acts as a shock absorber
  • Serves as a lever to propel the leg forward
  • Helps maintain balance by adjusting the body to uneven surfaces

Because the feet are very small compared with the rest of the body, the impact of each step exerts tremendous force upon them. This force is about 50% greater than the person's body weight. During a typical day, people spend about 4 hours on their feet and take 8,000 to 10,000 steps. This means that the feet support a combined force equivalent to several hundred tons every day.

Foot Problems and Their Locations

Foot pain generally starts in one of three places: the toes, the forefoot, or the hindfoot.

The Toes. Toe problems most often occur because of the pressure imposed by ill-fitting shoes.

The Forefoot. The forefoot is the front of the foot. Pain originating here usually involves one of the following bone groups:

  • The metatarsal bones (five long bones that extend from the front of the arch to the bones in the toe)
  • The sesamoid bones (two small bones embedded at the top of the first metatarsal bone, which connects to the big toe)

The Hindfoot. The hindfoot is the back of the foot. Pain originating here can extend from the heel, across the sole (known as the plantar surface), to the ball of the foot (the metatarsophalangeal joint).

Summary of Foot Problems

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