In an average lifetime, your feet help you walk 110,000 miles — more than four times around the Earth. To do so, they're a true anatomical feat, with a whopping 28 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 tendons, muscles and ligaments.
And, yes, how all those joints and muscles wear, or tear, can significantly impact your lifestyle. “Foot problems impact the quality of your life, whether it's going out for the evening or playing a round of golf,” says Alan Bass, a New Jersey–based podiatrist and a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA).
It's no wonder they sometimes hurt — and even more so as we age. A 2016 study published in the European journal Maturitas found that 1 in 4 people aged 45 or over experiences foot pain, especially in the forefoot and toes, which can impair mobility and balance, and even be a risk factor for falls. So what exactly causes these aches, and when should you see a doctor about them?
"The most common foot problems, regardless of age, are generated by overuse and caused by the shape of the foot, the structure of the foot, the surface it's on, the activity level, the weight the feet carry and the shoes we wear,” says Alex Kor, an Indiana-based podiatrist who is also an APMA spokesperson.
If you go to a podiatrist with foot pain, says Bass, “We first take a look at the foot structure and the way you walk and stand, and then we might do X-rays. But any treatment we do is tailored to the individual.” With that in mind, these ailments are the most likely to be diagnosed as the root of your problem:
This inflammation of the plantar fascia ligament, running from the heel to the ball of the foot, can cause pain in both the heel and the arch and is sometimes associated with heel spurs (calcium deposits under the heel bone). “Talk to 10 podiatrists, and they'll all say that plantar fasciitis is the most common problem they see walking into their office every day,” says Kor. “I've seen it in everyone from athletes who are teenagers to 95-year-olds.” One common cause, he says, is wearing the wrong shoes, no matter what you're doing. “Your foot doesn't know the difference between walking on the track, running on a treadmill or standing in your home eight to 10 hours a day.”