Heel pain or plantar fasciitis can be relieved with by applying ice and taking an anti-inflammatory medicine. Stretches also alleviate the pain. Treatments tips are also given for pain under the ball of the foot, ingrown toenails, bunions, and corns and calluses.

Imagine squeezing your hands into tight casts – not for a few weeks, but every day for a lifetime. Your hand muscles would shrivel. Joints would warp. Useless fingers would bend in peculiar directions.

Now look down. What are you doing to your feet? Binding them day in and day out in a stiff casing we call shoes.

While there’s no flaw in our body design that requires us to wear shoes, there are rusty nails, office rules and the leavings of large sheepdogs that demand we cover our feet. But in doing so, we cheat them out of a proper workout.

Shoes make our feet weak. And walking and running in them doesn’t exercise our feet nearly well enough.

Each year, your feet carry you roughly the distance from Chicago to New Orleans. Just a mile of running can build up a 5-ton load on the 28 bones and 32 spindly joints that make up each of your feet. Your biceps do far less, and think about how much attention you pay them, curling weights and flexing in the mirror. Granted, your feet probably won’t get you a date (unless she’s into that kind of thing), but don’t you think they deserve the kind of support they’re giving you?

Experts estimate that about 90 percent of American men suffer some kind of foot pain, and 10 percent of them seek treatment. Here are the most common foot faults that plague men, how to remedy them and, more important, how to shape up your feet so you can avoid sore dogs altogether.

Heel pain.

You usually feel this stabbing pain – called plantar fasciitis – when taking your first step in the morning or after sitting for a long time. The name refers to the plantar fascia, the flat band of ligament that runs from the heel to the ball of your foot. This ligament is normally quite tight. A tight Achilles tendon makes things worse, pulling the plantar fascia even tighter and causing inflammation and tiny tears.

Home remedies: Get off your feet, rub the arch with an ice cube and take an anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, to ease the ache. Later, try the golf-ball roll. While sitting in a chair, put your foot on top of a golf ball and roll it forward and backward under the ball and arch of your foot for two minutes for a soothing massage.

Most people, if they stretched just a little, would never have heel pain. Twenty to 30 seconds of stretching done four times a day can help relieve the pain and keep it from coming back. In fact, in a study of 105 people with plantar fasciitis, stretching exercises alleviated pain 89 percent of the time. Try these stretches:

  • Stand on a bottom step facing a flight of stairs. Hang one or both heels over the edge of the step and support your body weight on the front of your feet. Slowly lower your heels until you feel the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Use the handrail for balance.
  • Stand about 6 inches from a wall, then place the toes of your right foot against the wall with your heel on the ground. Now lean into the wall, emphasizing the stretch on the bottom of your foot. Hold the stretch for 60 seconds. Repeat with the left foot.

Pain under the ball of the foot.

Doctors call this problem metatarsalgia – an irritation of the heads of the five metatarsal bones that press on the ball of your foot when you walk. The metatarsals support about 60 percent of your weight. Often what happens is one of the metatarsal bones lowers, causing a pressure point; it feels as if there’s a sharp stone in your shoe. Other causes can be pinched nerves, arthritis, stress fractures and a flattening of the fat that pads the balls of the feet.

Home remedies: You can check for clues to a dropped metatarsal by examining the sock liners of your athletic shoes. Pull them out and study the spots where your feet have pounded the material flat. Ideally, the impact of all five metatarsal bones should be distributed evenly. But if you see one area that’s flatter than the others, that could indicate a metatarsal problem. The best treatment is to wear well-cushioned shoes or to add neoprene shoe liners for extra padding.

Exercising the tiny muscles in your feet can also keep pain at bay by strengthening and stabilizing the ball of the foot:

  • Towel curls. Spread a small towel on the floor. Using only your toes, grasp the near end of the towel and curl it under your foot. Keep gathering the towel this way until you reach the other end. Repeat five times. To increase the resistance, place a weight on the end of the towel.
  • Marble pickup. Place 20 marbles on the floor. Pick them up one at a time with your toes and place them in a bowl.

Both of these exercises help to prevent toe cramps, too.

Ingrown toenails.

You get these buggers when the sides of a toenail (and it’s almost always your big toenail) cut into the surrounding skin. It hurts like hell, especially when it gets infected, and can leave you hobbling around the office like an old man.

Home remedies: A quick way to ease the pain is to keep the adjacent skin away from the toenail. Take a piece of athletic tape and attach it to the skin next to the problem side of the nail. Pull the tape so that it draws the skin away from the nail, then wrap under and around the toe until the tape reattaches to itself. Wrap once more to increase the traction. Soaking the foot in warm water helps, too, as does applying an antibiotic cream.

Ingrown toenails are usually the result of poor trimming. To prevent them, cut your nails straight across – not rounded at the edges as with a fingernail – and not too short. You don’t want the corners of the nail pressing into the skinfold of the toe.

Bunions.

If you have bunions, you can blame your parents. Like many foot problems, these large, bony bumps, usually found on the side of the big toes, are hereditary. The enlarged bone itself is usually painless. What is painful is the friction from shoes that have become too tight. You can’t do anything yourself to shrink bunions – only surgery can remedy that – but you can ease the pain. Here’s how:

Home remedies. Cushion the bunion by placing an eighth-inch foam pad between it and your shoes. But your best bet is simply buying bigger shoes. About 5 percent of male patients wear shoes that are too narrow across the ball of the foot. To find out if your shoes are too narrow, stand barefoot on a piece of paper and trace your feet with a pencil. Then measure the diameter of the widest part of each outline and compare it to the width of the soles of your shoes. If your foot outline is wider than your shoe width, you need a bigger shoe.

Treatment Tips for Common Foot Problems

Also, since strong digits won’t curl up in your shoes and are less likely to become deformed into bunions or hammertoes, try these toe strengtheners for bunion sufferers:

  • Big-toe pulls. Align your big toes, then loop a thick rubber band around them. Pull your big toes away from each other against the tension of the rubber band and toward the smaller toes. Hold each pull for five seconds. Repeat 10 times.
  • Toe spreads. Wrap a thick rubber band around all the toes of one foot. Spread your toes against the tension of the rubber band. Hold the stretch for five seconds. Repeat 10 times.

Both of these exercises also help those who get toe cramps from running or using stair-climbers.

Corns and calluses.

These nuisances are simply thickened areas of skin caused by friction. The basic difference is that corns form on top of your feet and calluses form on the bottom.

Home remedies: As with bunions, your best defense against pain is to wear larger shoes that minimize the rubbing. Other than that, you can soak your feet in warm water mixed with Epsom salts and follow up with a good moisturizing cream. Don’t bother with those drugstore corn-removal creams. They contain salicylic acid, which can cause infection and give you more trouble than the corn itself.

Footnotes.

Finally, here are some general health and hygiene practices that will keep you on solid footing:

* Take your shoes off every chance you get. It’s good general conditioning for the feet, and you’ll develop a protective layer of skin on your sole.

* Use an antiperspirant or deodorant foot spray if your feet stink. Most foot deodorants kill the bacteria that cause odor.

* If you’re on your feet a lot, wear a rubber-sole wedge in your shoe, in which the heel support blends with the rest of the sole. Athletic shoes have this kind of support, and manufacturers such as Rockport, Dexter and Cole-Haan are building them into certain dress models.

* Wiggle your toes. When you buy shoes, make sure there’s enough room to wiggle your toes freely. Allow a half-inch of space from the end of your longest toe to the tip of the shoe.

* Get sport-specific shoes. If you play tennis more than twice a week, cross-trainers won’t do. And make sure they fit perfectly. We always recommend that athletes shop for their shoes within an hour of working out, when their feet are widest.

* Pay attention to pain. Go to a doctor whenever you experience severe foot pain, injure a joint or have bone or joint pain for more than two weeks.

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