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Does Your Foot Pain Signal a Serious Condition?

Source: By Eric Metcalf, MPH Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH

If you browsed through medical textbooks that explain different diseases, you'd find that many conditions can lead to harmful changes in the feet, including foot pain, says Paul F. Brezinski, DPM, a podiatrist in Palatine, Ill., and president of the Illinois Podiatric Medical Association.

For example, if your thyroid — a gland in your throat that makes crucial hormones — is not working properly, associated problems with your nerves can affect the sensation in your feet. Or if you have degenerative changes in your lower back, the nerves coming off your spinal cord may become irritated, which could also affect the health of your feet, he says. Here's a look at three common conditions that may result in foot pain and unhealthy feet.

Peripheral Arterial Disease

About 8 million Americans have peripheral arterial disease (PAD), according to the American Heart Association. In PAD, a fatty substance called plaque that builds up in the arteries in your legs, reducing the flow of blood to your lower legs and feet.

PAD can cause the muscles in your calves and other parts of your legs to cramp while you're moving around. The condition can also lead to foot pain and poorly healed foot wounds, Dr. Brezinski says. While the foot and leg-related symptoms of PAD are usually quite obvious, the disease is also associated with hidden damage to the heart and brain — which places those with PAD at much higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Not surprisingly, other risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, also increase your risk of PAD.

Medications can be used to manage PAD, but changes in diet and lifestyle (like quitting smoking) are very important as well.

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Gout

According to the Arthritis Foundation, 46 million Americans have arthritis or other chronic problems affecting their joints. For patients with rheumatoid arthritis — which affects 1.3 million Americans — about 90 percent will develop symptoms in the foot and ankle.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) develops when the body's natural defense system against disease, the immune system, mistakenly attacks your joints, causing them to become painful and swollen. The symptoms of RA may include severe foot pain. When the condition affects your feet, pain usually begins in your toes and later spreads to the rest of your feet and ankles. The joint damage caused by RA can eventually change the shape of your toes and feet. In some people, foot symptoms are the first hint that they even have RA. Once diagnosed, RA can often be treated effectively with medications, exercise and, in some cases, surgery.

Another type of arthritis that is known for causing foot pain is gout. This condition occurs when a substance called uric acid accumulates in your body. Deposits of uric acid collect in the joints — particularly in your big toes — and can cause intense, episodic pain. Uric acid can also lead to kidney stones if too much of it builds up in the kidneys.

Doctors can treat gout with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other medications including steroids. Getting regular exercise, drinking lots of water, avoiding certain medications, and staying at a healthy weight can help prevent gout attacks, too.

Foot Pain Health Problems: Diabetes

Roughly 24 million Americans have diabetes — and 6 million of them don't even know it yet. If you have this health problem, the glucose or blood sugar that your body normally uses as fuel can build up in your blood. This excess sugar can damage nerves and blood vessels in the feet — eventually leading to decreased sensation and compromised blood flow.

As a result, symptoms of high blood sugar include numbness or tingling in your feet as well as severe foot infections. Diabetes is a major cause of foot problems in the United States and can lead to the surgical removal of a toe or even more of your foot or lower leg. Fortunately, diabetes and its associated foot complications can be managed with medication and regular foot exams by your doctor. It is also important for diabetics to quit smoking, wear supportive shoes, and avoid being barefoot to prevent unnecessary foot trauma.

After a long day of standing at work, it's common to experience some foot discomfort, but if you notice severe foot pain that seems out of proportion to your physical activity, tell your doctor. What starts as a minor foot problem could indicate a more serious medical condition.

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