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How You Can Fix Those Aching Feet

Next steps for dealing with chronic foot complaints

Woman holding her feet

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En español | One of the most momentous sports injuries of all time wasn't a gruesome knee tear or a blown-out shoulder. It was Joe DiMaggio's heel spur, a painful bony protrusion said to have ended the New York Yankee's career in 1951. But DiMaggio's foot troubles didn't end there. In 1990, nearly 40 years after he hung up his cleats, the athlete sought treatment again: He couldn't play golf or even walk.

"Foot and ankle problems are not life-threatening, but they're lifestyle-threatening,” explains podiatrist Rock Positano, director of the nonsurgical foot and ankle service at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery. Foot pain often is the triggering event that leads to musculoskeletal problems like knee, hip and back pain and ultimately to falls, loss of mobility or worse.

About 24 percent of people over 45 suffer from foot pain. By 70, that number's more like 50 percent. But foot pain is not a normal part of aging, says New Jersey-based podiatrist Alan Bass. “I never say to my patients, ‘You're getting older and these are just things that are happening.’ “

DiMaggio's injury and a failed surgery during his playing career were the big impetuses for nonsurgical musculoskeletal foot and ankle interventions in this country, says Positano, who successfully treated the retired player with a specialized brace.

Today, thanks in part to Joltin’ Joe, it's easier than ever to resolve foot pain, often with orthopedics rather than by going under the knife. Here are some common places it may strike, and how to strike back.


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The Problems

1. Vascular

Blood flow to the feet diminishes with age, which can make any foot problem worse. For example, less blood flow to a tendon could contribute to issues like tendinitis, Positano says.

2. Orthopedics

Generally speaking, muscle or skeletal issues such as plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, bunions and arthritic changes in joints of the foot start to crop up after age 40, especially in active people. If you're a runner, you might notice tightness in your Achilles tendon all of a sudden.

3. Skin 

Slower nail growth and a weakening immune system can lead to pesky nail fungus, athlete's foot, cracked skin or nail trauma — the last often a result of jamming your feet in and out of shoes. As you move into your late 60s and 70s, your skin thins out and the fat pads on the bottom of your feet and under the balls of your feet also thin, says Emily Splichal, a New York-based podiatrist. Walking with little padding can be painful, she notes. If you have mobility issues, simply reaching your feet can become difficult; a lack of foot hygiene can exacerbate other problems.

4. Nerves 

Foot sensitivity declines as we age, making it more difficult for your body to determine how hard you're striking the ground or whether you're walking on an uneven surface, putting you at risk of falls. Researchers have found that by age 70 your feet need twice as much stimulation for your brain to sense it, Splichal says.

3 Easy Exercises

Years of sitting at a desk can throw your posture out of whack. That can change your gait and result in foot pain. Build a better base with these exercises from postural therapist Pete Egoscue.


Sit and Stand

Standing exercise diagram

ILLUSTRATIONS BY REMIE GEOFFROI

Stand with a chair behind you, feet pointing straight ahead. Sit and stand 10 times.


Ankle Rolls

How-to diagram of ankle roll exercise

Lie on your back with one leg straight and the other supported by your hands. Make 20 ankle circles in each direction, then point and flex the toes 20 times. Lower and repeat with the other ankle.


Static Back

Back exercise diagram

Lie on your back with your hips and knees bent at 90 degrees and your lower legs resting on the seat of a chair. Extend your arms straight out on the floor at a 45-degree angle, palms up. Try to relax your upper back and notice if your lower back is flat. Hold for five minutes.


The Solutions

Weight gain in our middle years can trigger foot issues, and since problems in the knees, hips and shoulders can also pop up as foot pain (and vice versa), it's not worth playing a guessing game. Just as you'd go to the dentist for a toothache, seek out a podiatrist (DPM) if you're suffering foot pain. Look for someone who is affiliated with a podiatry or medical school and who specializes in nonsurgical interventions, says Positano.

Meanwhile, these five steps can help you build happy feet.

1. Be a shoe snob

Up to 72 percent of people wear shoes that don't fit. That's in part because your arches can drop as you age, lengthening your feet. In older people, wearing shoes that are too narrow has been linked with corns, bunions and pain; shorter shoes are linked with other deformities such as hammer toe and claw toe.

2. Get on your feet

The more you sit, the more you deactivate your glute muscles — and proper foot function requires strong glutes, hips and abs, Splichal says. Exercises like hip bridges and planks encourage not only tummy work and hip extension (counterposes for sitting), but also help you practice getting up and down from the floor — something research has correlated with longevity.

3. Fight fire with food

Inflammation can play a role in foot pain. For an anti-inflammatory effect, fill up on omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids via nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, fruits, olive oil and fish. A happy consequence: Mediterranean-type diets have been linked with reduced body weight, which can reduce force on the foot, relieving pain.

4. Go barefoot

The nerves on the bottom of your feet are even more receptive than those on your hands — but stuffing your feet into shoes all day deprives them of the sensory stimulation they need to help your body move. Barefoot exercise such as yoga and Pilates, and walking around barefoot at home, can help.

5. Play ball

Rolling your foot on a lacrosse or golf ball for five minutes a day provides the stimulation your foot craves, improving stability and mobility by releasing tendons and fascial connections, says New York–based trainer Michael Ryan.

Cassie Shortsleeve is the former executive editor of Shape.com.

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