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Toe, Foot, and Ankle Problems, Noninjury
Everyone has had a minor problem with a toe, foot, or ankle. Most of the time our body movements do not cause problems, but it's not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear or overuse. Toe, foot, or ankle problems can also occur from injuries or the natural process of aging.
Your toes, feet, or ankles may burn, sting, hurt, feel tired, sore, stiff, numb, tingly, hot, or cold. You may have had a "charley horse" (muscle cramp) in your foot while lying in bed at night. Your feet or ankles may change color or swell. You may have noticed an embarrassing odor from your feet. Some changes in your feet and ankles are normal as a person ages or during pregnancy. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your symptoms.
Toe, foot, or ankle problems may be caused by an injury. If you think an injury caused your problem, see the topic Toe, Foot, or Ankle Injuries. But there are many noninjury causes of toe, foot, or ankle problems.
Most skin problems that affect your feet are more annoying than they are serious. If you have:
- The feeling of walking on pebbles: You may have plantar warts on the bottom of your feet.
- Patches of thick and tough skin on the heel or ball of your foot: You may have a callus, corn, blister, or skin growth.
- Red, peeling, cracking, burning, and itchy skin between your toes or on the bottom of your feet: You may have athlete's foot. Or maybe your feet are reacting to the shoes you are wearing (shoe dermatitis).
- Red, swollen, and painful skin around a toenail: You may have an ingrown nail or an infection around your nail (paronychia).
- Red, swollen soles of your feet that are painful to the touch or when you walk: You may have a bacterial infection. Public showers, hot tubs, or swimming pools are common areas where bacterial infections, athlete's foot, and warts can be spread to your feet.
Toe joints are more likely to develop problems than other joints in your feet.
- Heat, pain, redness, swelling, and extreme tenderness that comes on quickly in your big toe joint may be caused by gout. Similar symptoms can occur with an infection.
- If you have swelling or a bump at the base of your big toe, you may have a bunion.
- If you have a bump on the outside of your little toe, you may have a bunionette, also called a Tailor's bunion.
- If your toes, other than your big toes, bend in an odd position, you may have hammer toes, mallet toes, or claw toes.
- Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are common when you have conditions such as bursitis, arthritis, lupus, or gout.
You may develop pain in the front (ball) of your foot (metatarsalgia) or in your heel. Heel problems commonly occur when you overuse calf muscles, wear shoes with high heels, or participate in activities, such as running, that cause repeated pounding on your heels.
- Sharp pain on the bottom of your heel may be caused by plantar fasciitis.
- Pain in the back of your heel and ankle may be caused by Achilles tendinitis or tendinosis (tendinopathy) or retrocalcaneal bursitis.
- Pain that is worse before or after exercise but improves during exercise may be caused by a stress fracture of a bone in your foot (usually a metatarsal bone).
- Small bony growths under your heel bone may be a heel spur.
- Pain in your midfoot may be caused by "fallen arches" or by being flat-footed.
- Pain or a bump on the back of the heel is a type of bursitis called Haglund's deformity.
Numbness or tingling
Many conditions may affect the nerves of the foot and cause numbness, tingling, and burning.
- Pain, burning, tingling, or numbness that occurs between your toes, especially the third and fourth toes, and in the ball of your foot may be caused by a growth around the nerves (Morton's neuroma).
- Pain, numbness, and tingling that begins in your back or buttock, moves down your leg, and into your foot may be sciatica, caused by a pinched nerve (nerve root compression).
- Foot and ankle pain that occurs with numbness and weakness in your foot may be caused by a pinched nerve in your ankle (tarsal tunnel syndrome) or back (sciatica).
- Burning, numbness, or lack of feeling in your feet may be caused by poor circulation, especially in people who have diabetes or peripheral arterial disease. The circulation problem can lead to nerve damage (peripheral neuropathies). Foot problems are more likely to develop in people who have these conditions.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
Pain in children 3 years and older
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.
When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.
There are other reasons for color and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal color returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Symptoms of infection may include:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
- Red streaks leading from the area.
- Pus draining from the area.
- A fever.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Most minor toe, foot, or ankle problems go away on their own. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your pain, swelling, and stiffness.
- If you have swelling, be sure to remove all rings, anklets, or any other jewelry that goes around your leg or ankle. It will be harder to remove your jewelry if swelling increases, which in turn can cause other serious problems, such as nerve compression or restricted blood flow.
- Use rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) for pain and swelling.
- Stop, change, or take a break from any activities that cause your symptoms.
- Avoid "running through the pain," which may increase damage to your foot.
- Consider changing your exercise routine if you think running or another high-impact sport is causing your foot pain. Switch temporarily to a low-impact exercise activity, such as cross-country skiing, stair-climbing machines, bicycling (regular or stationary), rowing, or swimming.
- Use sensible sports training techniques, such as wearing the right shoes and stretching before activities.
- Gently massage your feet to reduce discomfort, relax your feet, and promote circulation.
- Wear comfortable and supportive shoes and socks. See tips on good footwear to learn how to choose the right shoes for you.
- Consider using an orthotic shoe device, such as an arch support, to help relieve your foot pain.
- Try heel-cord exercises to increase your strength and flexibility if your heel or heel cord (Achilles tendon) is tight and painful. This may help relieve your heel pain.
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your pain:
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Try home treatment for these other foot problems such as:
- Foot cramps. Try the following home treatment to help relieve leg cramps:
- Straighten your leg.
- Hold your foot and pull it toward you. It is probably easiest to do this from a sitting position. You can loop a towel around the end of your foot and pull it toward you if you have trouble reaching your foot.
- Gently rub or massage your foot.
Calluses and corns. Home treatment may help relieve discomfort from corns, calluses, or other thickened skin:
- To thin a corn or callus, rub the thickened skin with a towel after a shower or bath.
- Use a pumice stone after bathing to reduce the tissue. Do not do this if you have diabetes, peripheral arterial disease, or an immune system problem, or if you have been told that you have poor circulation in your feet.
- Pad pressure areas with doughnut-shaped felt, moleskin patches, or lamb's wool.
- Never cut corns or calluses. Infection may develop.
- Some lotions and moisturizers may also relieve symptoms from corns and calluses.
- Blisters. Home treatment for blisters depends on whether the blister is small or large and whether it has broken open. See a picture of blisters.
- Swollen ankles and feet. Try the following home treatment measures to reduce swelling in your ankles and feet:
- Elevate swollen feet and ankles on a footstool or pillows (above the level of your heart) when sitting for any length of time.
- Get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour if you sit for any length of time.
- Cut down on your salt (sodium) intake or make a salt substitute. Sodium can be hidden in foods such as cheese, canned soups, and salad dressing. Talk to your doctor before trying a salt substitute.
If you are diagnosed with a foot problem, other home treatment steps may help.
- If your varicose veins are swollen or uncomfortable, see the topic Varicose Veins.
- If your feet are peeling, cracking, itching, and burning from athlete's foot, see the topic Athlete's Foot.
- If you have warts on your feet, see the topic Warts and Plantar Warts.
- If you have heel pain, see the topic Achilles Tendon Problems.
- If you have bent toes, see the topic Hammer, Claw, and Mallet Toes.
- If you have calluses or corns, see the topic Calluses and Corns.
- If you have pain in the arch of your foot, see the topic Plantar Fasciitis.
- If you have pain in the midfoot or arch, see the topic Flatfoot (Pes Planus).
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Check your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- Pain or swelling develops.
- Signs of infection develop.
- Numbness, tingling, or cool, pale skin develops.
- Symptoms continue despite home treatment.
- Symptoms become more severe or frequent.
The following tips may prevent toe, foot, or ankle problems.
- Bathe your feet daily in lukewarm (not hot) water. Use a mild soap, preferably one containing moisturizers, or use a moisturizer separately.
- Avoid problems by wearing good footwear. Wear comfortable and supportive shoes. Support weak or unstable ankles by using a brace or taping before exercise or activities that increase your risk of problems.
- Wear the correct size panty hose and stockings. Avoid wearing constricting garters, knee-high, or thigh-high stockings.
- Use a rubber mat to stand on if your work requires you to stand on hard surfaces. This may reduce stress on your feet.
- Maintain a reasonable weight for your height.
- Do stretching exercises for the tendons at the back of the heels. This is especially important for athletes before sports activities but is also helpful for people who are not involved with sports.
- Walk regularly to improve circulation, increase flexibility, reduce fatigue, and encourage bone and muscle development.
- Establish good exercise habits and sports training techniques.
- Consider consulting a sports-training specialist if you are a competitive or serious recreational athlete. He or she can recommend training and conditioning programs to prevent foot problems.
Foot care tips
- Never cut calluses and corns with a razor or a pocketknife. Use nonprescription toe sleeves or toe spacers to prevent irritation.
- Prevent foot problems if you have diabetes.
- Prevent foot cramps with proper stretching exercises.
- Prevent plantar warts with proper footwear.
- Prevent athlete's foot by taking care of your feet.
Preparing For Your Appointment
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What are your main symptoms?
- How long have you had your symptoms?
- What were you doing when your symptoms started?
- Have you had this problem in the past? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
- What activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle, make your symptoms better or worse?
- Did foot problems begin after you started wearing new footwear?
- What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
- What nonprescription medicines have you taken? Did they help?
- Have you started any new medicines or have you had a change in the dosage of a medicine?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine