Your back pain may not be the result of weak abs or that extra set of deadlifts you insisted on cranking out. Instead, it could be coming from your feet of all places. As the foundation for your entire body, even the slightest issue with your feet can create a ripple effect, manifesting as joint stress, back pain, or simply a kink in your alignment that makes you more prone to injuries in your workouts. (According to a recent survey conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association, 65% of folks with foot pain have back pain, too.) We talked to New York City podiatrist Pushpa Chauhan, D.P.M., and Golden Harper, a world-record marathoner and the founder of Altra footwear, about the common foot problems that could be royally screwing up the rest of your body—and how to fix them. Then, check out 4 Steps to Healthy Feet for ways to ward off future woes.
Plantar fasciitis can cause extreme pain in the heel and arch. It occurs when the fascia (tissue) around those parts of the foot becomes inflamed, often the result of wearing ill-fitting shoes that don’t have proper arch support. According to Chauhan, the fascia literally tears away from your heel, and if you don’t treat the issue, you could not only suffer more inflammation and pain but also develop heel spurs.
FIX IT: Heal plantar fasciitis by taking anti-inflammatories, stretching (Chauhan suggests regularly pulling your toes up toward you for a few seconds after a workout), and massaging your feet to help boost circulation. It’s important to visit a podiatrist at the first sign of pain, though, to rule out something more serious. Your doctor might suggest a pair of custom orthotics.
Flat Feet, Pronation, and High Arches
The type of shoes you wear can make imperfections in your feet worse. “High-arched feet are prone to tendinitis and hammertoes,” Chauhan explains. “Flat feet [when your arch is flat on the floor] or pronation [when the foot falls inward] can cause knee and hip pain, too.”
FIX IT: Ask your podiatrist to give you a gait analysis—correcting the way you walk and stand can help knee pain—as well as advice on orthotics. Also, strengthening your feet, by walking barefoot in the grass for a few minutes each day, Harper suggests, can help reduce the need for additional support. Harper also recommends wearing a level shoe, such as those made by Altra, which, because the heel isn’t elevated, allows for a more natural stride when walking.
Corns, Callouses, and Bunions
Corns and callouses are essentially a skin buildup, while a bunion is a bony bump on the side of the big toe, the result of the toes being pressed together. “Nonsupportive or too-tight shoes are the usual culprits,” Chauhan says. “If untreated, these issues can even lead to bursitis, a swelling in the joints.”
FIX IT: “Drugstore solutions may remove only the top layer of skin,” Chauhan says, “so it’s good to see a podiatrist for a real solution.” Also: Wear more supportive, comfier shoes.
It’s just a pinched nerve between toes, but it can knock you off your feet. “It’s almost always caused by toes being cramped together, plus excess pressure from an elevated heel,” Harper says. “As shoes wear out, the metatarsal heads (part of the bones that make up the ball of your foot) fall into a sort of cavity. When toes are squeezed over time, nerves can get pinched.”
FIX IT: Ask your podiatrist about a metatarsal pad, which can be worn in your shoe. Sport a softer, wider shoe until the pain disappears, and then choose a shoe with a larger toe box.