Oh Your Aching Feet
A while back, I wrote here about treatments for common foot ailments from a podiatrist's point of view. Given that it's summer and "barefoot season," and I already broke a toe from being barefoot, I decided to touch base with a naturopathic physician to get her take on foot issues. According to Carolyn Fuller, ND, at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, foot problems are really about more than your feet. After all, the foot bone's connected to the leg bone, the leg bone's connected to the hip bone, etc. When you don't take good care of your feet, there can be consequences for the rest of your body. For example, if you routinely encase your feet in stylish, pointy high heels, Dr. Fuller notes that you are apt to develop not only corns on your toes... the stress and strain of the unnatural position of your body puts pressure on the back, hips and neck as well. It's always a good idea to take good care of your feet and address little problems before they become big ones.
These thick deposits of compacted, dead skin cells most frequently develop due to the repeated pressure and friction of skin rubbing against ill-fitting shoes or toe irregularities (such as bunions on the big toes). Here's what you can do about them...
Wear well-fitting shoes. This gold standard holds for all foot ailments, to which improperly fitting shoes are likely to be a major contributing factor. Shoes should not be too large or too small, and must be the correct length and width. To distribute wear and tear equally over the foot, wear a different pair of shoes each day. As for high heels, think of them in the same category as chocolate -- fine for special occasions, but not for every day.
Invest in a pumice stone. To prevent corns from developing in the first place, use a pumice stone -- a natural rock formed from cooled lava -- or a pumice foot scrub to exfoliate dead skin cells and get rid of hard, dry skin. Your best bet is to "pumice" feet after soaking them in a tub or footbath.
Do not self-treat corns. Any lesion on the foot can easily become infected, cautions Dr. Fuller, so you should not attempt to treat corns yourself. The exception: If a corn is a once-in-a-while occurrence -- say you went backpacking last weekend and developed one -- it's fine to relieve the pain with over-the-counter moleskin or padding.
What to expect at the ND's office: After a patient soaks his/her feet to soften tissue for easier removal, Dr. Fuller uses a foot emery board to slough off the thickened skin, rather than cutting it. In addition to treating the corn itself, the ND acts as a kind of health detective to get to the bottom of why corns develop in the first place. For example, often the root cause is a bone spur. According to Dr. Fuller, these bony overgrowths develop when the body tries to compensate for abnormal structure or movement elsewhere. To discover if this is the case, she examines each patient's stance and gait -- that is, how a person stands and walks. If the underlying problem turns out to be a bone spur or flat feet, then it is recommended that the patient get individualized orthotic devices to place in shoes to correct biomechanical problems.
A note about adjusting to an orthotic device: You must build your way up to using orthotics, cautions Dr. Fuller. Do not wear them all day at first, but rather for a few hours at a time. Keep in mind that you are readjusting your muscles back into a normal position, and it will take a few days to get used to this. If you try to make the transition all at once, it's likely to be painful and you may become discouraged.
These thickened yellow or brownish toenails are a sandal wearer's nightmare. Tinea unguium -- a fungal infection -- may affect one or more nails and one or both feet. Dr. Fuller told me that conventional antifungal pharmaceuticals have many adverse side effects. Instead, she recommends more natural approaches to dealing with fungal nails...
Practice good foot hygiene. Make sure your feet are clean and dry before putting on shoes, advises Dr. Fuller. When you work out, she suggests that you wear non-cotton, synthetic socks that wick sweat away from skin. Another good idea: Shoes that breathe. Following a run or workout, promptly remove sweaty socks and shoes. Make sure shoes air out and dry completely before you put them on again. If you exercise everyday or go for walks in the moist morning, you might consider investing in a second pair of shoes so that you can alternate and always have a dry pair to wear. In the gym, protect yourself from germs -- wear flip-flops or sandals in the locker room and shower. And to avoid spreading infection, clean your toenail clippers with rubbing alcohol after each use.
Consider herbal fungus fighters. As with corns, Dr. Fuller cautions against self-treatment, stressing that fungal nails require the attention of a health-care professional. In her practice, she prescribes oral pau d'arco and topical tea tree oil for her fungal nail patients. A good antifungal soak consists of three to five drops of tea tree oil in a bowl of hot water. Soak for five to 10 minutes once a day, preferably after a shower or bath.
A note about athlete's foot: Since athlete's foot is a form of fungal infection, the soaks and fungal fighters above can be effective for this very common ailment.
When a toenail cuts into the soft skin surrounding it, expect pain, redness, inflammation and possibly an infection. The quicker you take care of an ingrown toenail, the less troublesome it is likely to be...
Ban sharp, pointy shoes from your life. Tight shoes with pointy toes are often the cause of ingrown toenails.
Practice good nail care. Forget about making dainty angles to show off your tanned feet this summer. Cutting nails in the corners or sides makes you more susceptible to ingrown toenails. Instead, keep nails trimmed straight across, slightly longer than the end of the toe. To make nail trimming a cinch, soften nails first with a soak in the tub or a footbath. (Note: People with diabetes should have their toenails trimmed by a health-care professional, because people with diabetes are extremely vulnerable to foot ailments and complications.)
Consider natural remedies. Calendula cream or ointment, available at the health-food store, helps heal inflamed tissue. You can also soak your feet in a hot footbath containing several drops of calendula tincture. Another option: Ask your naturopathic physician about homeopathic remedies such as Thuja occidentalis or Magnetis polus australis, which should help make the feet less vulnerable to inflammation.
If an ingrown toenail is very painful or infected, see a physician. Sometimes the only answer lies in draining any infection and removing the top portion of the nail.
Inflammation of the plantar fascia ligament (which runs along the bottom of the foot) can cause severe pain, especially when you first get up in the morning or after you've been stationary for a while. Here's what you can do about it...
Wear well-fitting shoes, and consider over-the-counter inserts or prescription orthotic devices. Shoes that provide good arch support are a must, especially when flat feet or high arches are part of the problem. Also a good idea: Insoles that support the arch and reduce tension on the ligament. Another option is a heel pad, cushion or lift to relieve pressure on the plantar fascia.
Stretching is essential. Plantar fasciitis is at its worst when muscles tighten up after periods of inactivity. Maintain optimal flexibility by regularly stretching the foot, heel and calf muscles. A beneficial exercise: While you're sitting at your desk, roll your foot back and forth over a tennis ball.
Ask your ND about therapeutic ultrasound treatments. In her practice, Dr. Fuller uses therapeutic ultrasound to reduce inflammation.
Ask your physician about magnesium supplements. It can help relax contracted or stiff muscles. Magnesium citrate is the form of magnesium the body absorbs best. Consult your ND about exact dosages.
Treat aching feet to a soothing soak. To ease inflammation and discomfort, dip your feet into a 104° F footbath made with three to five drops of an essential oil (such as peppermint, lavender, rosemary, cypress or tea tree) and one tablespoon of Epsom salts. Soak for five to 15 minutes.
Massage your pain away. An ice massage can help reduce inflammation and tension in the ligament.
As for that broken or bruised toe of mine? If you insist on being foolish like me and going barefoot, then you will put yourself at risk. Should you bang that toe, then contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, recommends soaking your foot in hot water (104° F) with Epsom salts and comfrey root powder after the initial swelling has stabilized. This will speed healing. You may, however, still need to have the foot X-rayed and discuss other strategies to manage the break with your doctor or ND.
STAY IN TIP-TOP SHAPE HEAD TO TOE
Your feet can have an impact on the rest of your body. Whatever the foot ailment, take good care of them and wear shoes that fit properly.