Your feet are your friends – here’s how to treat them properly

woman massaging feet

Does taking your shoes off now that the weather is warming up fill you with dread? Are you afraid of what you might find? Or do you look forward to freeing your feet and wiggling your toes?

Those of you with bunions or sesamoiditis might embrace the freedom of thongs and slides that don’t put pressure on your achy big toe. Those of you who suffer from plantar fasciitis might dread walking around bare foot and prefer to keep your shoes on. And those of you who don’t have any aches or pains in your feet may instead worry about what your toenails look like, whether your corns and calluses need some attention or whether your dry flaky skin needs to be moisturised.

Whether you think your feet are fabulous, you have ongoing niggles and pain or you prefer not to think about them at all, today is the day to remember how amazing your feet are. Summer is just weeks away, so take your shoes off and have a look at how incredible they are.

Did you know that your foot and ankle contain 26 bones? That means your two feet have a quarter of the bones in your entire body! Each foot also has 33 joints and more than 100 tendons, ligaments and muscles. Anatomically, they are complex, but they are also rather amazing.

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Your feet comprise the major shock-absorbing system of your body, and are able to support your entire body weight. (They can actually support up to 300 per cent more if you jog down a hill). Your feet also contain hundreds of sweat glands, which is another reason to take off your shoes as that helps to keep your feet cool and those dirty sock odours at bay.

Your feet are able to adapt to uneven surfaces and cushion your lower limbs when you walk or run through complex shifting and gliding of the bones and joints. Pronation and supination are a normal part of foot movement and are only a problem if you have too much of one or too little of the other. Many of us have been told that we ‘overpronate’ but pronation is a normal part of balance and shock absorption in a healthy foot.

According to the NSW Fall Prevention and Healthy Ageing Network, 30 per cent of people over the age of 60 experience a fall every year. There are more than 200,000 hospital admissions due to falls, many of which can be prevented.

Regular exercise, balance training and foot care are just some of the things that can help.

So why is foot care important?

On the sole of each foot you have between 100,000 to 200,000 nerve endings. That means your feet are a fundamental part of your balance and proprioception (awareness of where your body is in space).

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Every time you take a step, these nerves take note of the surface you are standing on and communicate with all the muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones in your legs and body to keep you balanced and move you forward. To do that, feet need to be both flexible and stable at the same time – flexible to work as shock absorbers and stable so you can push off as you move.

The nerves in the soles of your feet are constantly sharing information about the surface you are standing on with your brain, to make sure you are adjusting not only the muscles and joints in your feet, but also making subtle adjustments to all the other joints in your body.

As you can imagine, shoes can impede this feedback and can have huge implications for all the other joints in your body as well as for the structure and strength of your feet.

Shoes that are too rigid can make it hard for your nerves to know what the ground beneath you is like, in turn affecting your body’s ability to make micro-adjustments and keep you upright. Shoes that are too sloppy can result in chaffing and rubbing as well as make your muscles work harder to keep your shoes on.

Read: Why is low back pain such a pain?

A review of research on footwear and foot pain found that more than 60 per cent of people wear shoes that fit well. However, these studies found that older people and those with diabetes are likely to wear shoes that are too narrow for their feet and older people are also likely to wear shoes that are too long (perhaps to accommodate for a wider forefoot).

Wearing poorly fitted shoes is a significant problem not only because it can affect balance, but the authors also note, because poorly fitting shoes can cause foot pain as well as toe deformities, corns and calluses.

Interestingly, research has also found that runners who choose a shoe for comfort are less likely to suffer an injury than runners who choose a shoe that is specifically designed for motion control.

What is foot care?
Foot care starts with wearing shoes that fit. Consider adding an innersole if your shoes are too big, ask a bootmaker to stretch your shoes if they are too narrow or maybe upgrade to a new pair if you can afford it.

Cutting your toe nails can also be tricky as you get older, but it is a very important part of looking after your feet so consider buying long handled nail trimmers.

Your local pharmacist can also give you lots of advice about inserts, padding and support that may help.

Walking barefoot is a really important part of foot care for some people. Walking barefoot allows your feet to communicate with the ground as efficiently as possible and helps your brain to stay aware of what the ground beneath your feet is like.

By walking around barefoot at home, you can give your nerve endings a workout, stimulate your muscles and ligaments and allow your feet to practise doing what they do best.

If you have diabetes, however, it is best to keep the barefoot walking to inside your home as diabetics may find it hard to know if they have stepped on something sharp or if they have damaged their feet.

It is also really important to give your feet exercises to do to strengthen them and make them more resilient.

  1. Stretches might be an important part of your foot care if you have rigid or stiff feet. Try doing a calf stretch every day or even roll a ball under your foot to release the muscles. Giving your foot a hand shake by sliding your fingers between each of your toes can be surprisingly difficult but a great way to stretch the muscles too.
  2. Calf raises are almost always a must. Try rising up onto your toes with your knees straight and then try to do some with your knees bent. This will work the different muscles in your calves and feet keeping them balanced and strong.
  3. Next time you’re brushing your teeth try spreading your toes or lifting just your big toe. Your toes should be able to move independently. Some people find this extremely difficult.
  4. While you wait for the kettle to boil, balance on one leg. This will help to wake up the nerves in your feet and will also help to improve your balance.

Whether you have foot pain or not, it’s the perfect time to free your feet and wiggle your toes.

If you have specific concerns such as diabetes, pins and needles or numbness in your feet, or recalcitrant pain that won’t go away, you should make an appointment to see your GP, podiatrist or physiotherapist for a thorough diagnosis and care.

YourLifeChoices is partnering with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Musculoskeletal Research Hub on ‘The Buddy Study’ – a program that aims to not only get you moving, but also to enhance the physical and mental benefits of exercise. This study is aimed at helping older people with back pain by analysing whether exercising with a buddy is better than exercising alone.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please visit the Sydney University website – and tell them the YourLifeChoices team sent you. Or you can complete the pre-screening form.

Kate Roberts is an experienced physiotherapist and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. She has a passion for helping older Australians manage their aches and pains.

Are your feet ageing as well as they should? Do you experience foot pain? Do you have trouble trimming your toenails? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Kate Roberts

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