"My feet are killing me!" is a common phrase we hear. But could it be true? Maybe not quite, but problems with the feet can indicate a more serious condition in another part of the body that may need medical attention.
Reflexologists and proponents of foot massage around the world have long claimed that manipulating points of the feet can improve the health of internal organs. There is little evidence to prove this, but it is clear that aspects of a person's general health sometimes find expression in the feet.
In this article, we will look at 10 things that the feet can reveal about the condition of the rest of the body.
The feet bear the weight of the whole body when we stand or walk.
The feet contain a quarter of the body's bones. Each foot has 33 joints, 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments; and countless nerves and blood vessels that link all the way to the heart, spine, and brain.
It is hardly surprising, then, that when the feet are out of line, it affects the whole body. Keeping the feet in good condition is of vital importance to our well-being.
1. Foot cramping and spasms
Muscle spasms, commonly known as charley horses, can be uncomfortable, but they can also be signs of deficiencies in the body.
The spasms can be caused by dehydration. Insufficient hydration can mean that the muscles are not getting enough oxygen and that there is a lack or imbalance of electrolytes or nutrients, especially sodium, calcium, potassium, or magnesium. This could be a side effect of diuretic medication, which aims to reduce excess fluid in the body.
If the spasms happen while walking, it could indicate a circulatory problem.
Spasms can also result from overexertion, or not stretching enough when exercising. Finally, the type of shoes might contribute, for example, changing from flat shoes to high heels.
2. An enlarged big toe
It is a type of inflammatory arthritis that happens when too much uric acid, or monosodium urate, builds up in the tissues and fluids of the body.
As uric acid crystals tend to collect in the coolest part of the body, gout normally manifests in the big toe, and this is where the symptoms tend to appear first.
People who are overweight or obese, and those with poor circulation, are more prone.
Alcohol, a meat-rich diet, and some medications can add to the risk.
Anti-inflammatory medications can help, but recurrent gout can lead to a degenerative kind of arthritis called gouty arthritis.
Gout also increases the risk of kidney stones.
3. Cold feet, warm heart?
Feet that change color, from red to white to blue, may be a sign of Raynaud's disease, in which blood vessels narrow when the nerves overreact to the cold.
For people with primary Raynaud's, avoiding cold and tobacco normally helps; but 20 percent of cases stem from an underlying disease, especially of the connective tissues. This can be more serious.
4. Swollen feet
Swollen feet can indicate a wide range of problems, some of which can be life-threatening.
If there is redness, warmth, and inflammation, there could be an infection.
Bruising and swelling suggests a sprain or fracture.
Painless swelling in the feet happens when fluid builds up in the body, and gravity means that it collects in the feet.
Home treatment includes raising the feet when sitting down, exercising the legs, reducing salt intake, and avoiding tight clothes. Losing weight may help some people.
5. Spoon-shaped toenails
Concave toenails, or koilonychia, is not just unsightly, but it can also be a sign of systemic disease.
Spoon-shaped toenails can also be a sign of a genetic disorder, circulatory problems, autoimmune diseases, and musculoskeletal conditions.
6. Colored toenails
Yellow toenails are common among women who always wear nail polish, but they can be a sign of something more serious.
They can also indicate bronchoiectasis, a lung condition that can lead to breathing problems.
A variety of nail colors and textures can reflect an even wider variety of systemic problems. If there is discoloration or deformity of the nails, and this is not linked to the use of cosmetics, it might be a good idea to seek medical advice.
7. 'Pins and needles'
Numbness or tingling in the feet can be a sign of circulatory problems or damage to the peripheral nervous system, possibly a trapped nerve or one of a range of diseases.
In people with diabetes, long exposure to high blood glucose can cause nerve damage, and this can lead to tingling in the feet. According to the National MS Society, numbness or "pins and needles" in the extremities is often one of the first signs of multiple sclerosis (MS). Rarely, numbness or tingling can be a sign of a tumor or a stroke.
8. Aching toe joints
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that affects the bones in the joints. The first signs are usually in the hands and feet, and the ankles and feet of 90 percent of people with the condition will be affected.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the lining of the joints, or synovium, becomes swollen and inflamed. The joint and supporting ligaments and tissues are damaged, leading to decreased mobility.
There may be a deformity, such as claw toe or hammer toe. As the bones soften, stress fractures and bone collapse may result.
Rest, ice, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can help to relieve symptoms and reduce pain and inflammation.
Shoe inserts can help to minimize pressure and correct the shape of the foot, and some people wear a brace.
Steroid injections can reduce inflammation in the early stages, but surgery may be necessary eventually.
9. Foot drop
If a person has foot drop, or drop foot, they cannot lift the front part of the foot. This is a sign of an underlying muscular, neurological, or anatomical problem.
There may be nerve or muscle damage as far up as the neck or shoulder. It may cause the foot to drag when walking, or the individual may develop an unusual gait, lifting their thigh to enable the foot to clear the floor.
Foot drop can result from a nerve injury in the leg, or damage during a hip operation. Sometimes it is related to a neurological disease such as polio, or a brain or spinal cord disorder. A person with multiple sclerosis or stroke may have foot drop.
Treatment and its outcomes depend on the underlying cause. A brace or splint may help to maintain a normal foot position, physical therapy can help with gait, and nerve stimulation sometimes helps to lift the foot.
Surgery may be offered to treat the nerves, to fuse the bones, or to correct the position of tendons.
10. Persistent sores
A common symptom of diabetes is neuropathy, or damage to the nerves. This means that patients are unable to feel or notice injuries, for example, having a stone in the foot or a blister.
If the injuries get worse and become infected, they can lead to ulcers and gangrene, and the need for amputation. Nerve damage can also cause the feet and toes to change shape.
Other signs of diabetes that appear in the feet include dry, cracked, and peeling skin, calluses, and poor circulation.
So, next time you have a minor problem with your feet, take note. Your feet may not be killing you, but they could be alerting you to a more serious problem.