As we age, the body changes, and our feet are no exception. Foot pain and foot problems are common for older adults, making it difficult to execute daily functions. From flat feet to heel pain, there are many ailments that can make tasks such as climbing stairs or getting out of a chair challenging. It's also possible that this pain can impact your balance which increases the risk of falling and injuring yourself. Aging feet changes, although common, can be difficult to navigate on your own. Let's explore how painful feet can develop and outline some tips to improve your overall foot health regardless of your age.
Exploring the Structure of the Foot
Elderly feet problems are not one size fits all. Consider the decades of standing and walking on your feet and the pressure that it places on the ankle joint. Over time, the natural cushioned layer underneath your heel and the ball of your foot begin to thin out. As you can imagine, your aching feet are the result of flatter and less flexible arches, causing pain and your foot gets longer and wider than it used to be. You might even find that wearing shoes that once were comfortable is no longer an option.
There are specific medical conditions that could increase your risk of developing foot problems. For example, poor circulation as a result of diabetes can result in nerve damage and reduced blood circulation. When there's poor circulation, it can result in peripheral neuropathy, peripheral arterial disease, and other related foot problems.
Are Foot Problems Common?
Aging feet problems aren't uncommon. In fact, one in three people over the age of 65 experiences aching feet, stiffness, or overall foot pain. Those who live in long-term care facilities have even higher rates of foot and ankle problems. Foot problems are more common in those who are older, obese, diabetic, or have cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, or knee, hip, or back pain.
Other risk factors include wearing poorly fitting shoes or the development of fungal infections in the toenail. It is estimated that one-third of all older people experience this. In addition, corns, calluses, and deformities of the toe joints such as bunions can increase the chance of developing foot-related issues.
21 Most Common Types of Foot Problems
Foot and ankle surgeons can treat everything from ingrown toenails to plantar fasciitis to stress fractures. Let's delve into some of the most common foot problems.
#1 Fat Pad Atrophy
As you get older, you might put on extra fat or weight. However, you will likely lose padding in your feet. This cushioned layer is ideal for protecting your feet from the daily pounding that stems from walking, running, or moving around. As a result of losing this padding, your bones dig straight into the ground, causing pain in the ball of your foot and your heel. Ideally, you can invest in custom-foam shoe inserts referred to as orthotics to help combat any pain. In more severe cases that orthotics cannot fix, your doctor might recommend filler injections to help replace the lost fat in your feet.
#2 Diabetic Foot Ulcer
If you suffer from many metabolic and neurovascular factors, you might be experiencing an issue called diabetic neuropathy. As a result, you might experience the loss of feeling or pain in your feet, toes, legs, and arms that stems from poor circulation and nerve damage. It's possible to develop sores or blisters as dead skin builds up on the tough top layer of the skin. These injuries become unnoticed due to the loss of feeling and can be the source of infection or bacteria.
Risk factors for diabetic foot ulcers include poor glycemic control, smoking cigarettes, poor circulation, diabetic kidney disease, or previous foot ulcerations. In extreme cases, a diabetic foot ulcer can result in the need for a diabetes amputation.
Low bone density could lead to the development of ankle arthritis. A form of osteoarthritis, this is a degenerative condition that impacts the articular cartilage within the ankle joint that wears thin and breaks down over time. The lack of cartilage means there's no protective coating between the bones, resulting in bone spurs or bone fragments. This causes pain and stiffness in the joint. Many adults dismiss these symptoms and accept them as a part of aging, but it's important to seek the expertise of a doctor. There are many possible treatments that can get you back to having healthy feet. If you're suffering, you can seek ankle foot orthotics for osteoarthritis.
#4 Morton's Neuroma
A neuroma isn't a tumor but instead a benign growth. It results from thickening tissue and inflamed nerve tissue that can develop anywhere from your shoe pads to your big toe. Specifically, Morton's neuroma causes foot pain located on the ball of the foot, typically between the third and fourth toes. It produces a similar feeling to having a pebble in your shoe that you're constantly standing on. Other people report feeling a shooting or burning pain or feeling as though they're walking on a folded sock. It's possible to experience numbness in the foot as a result of Morton's neuroma.
As many as one in three people suffer from this condition, and common treatment options include changing the type of footwear that you use, changing out your shoe pads, or getting a massage. Some people opt for steroid shots or even surgery to fix this issue.
#5 Cracked Heels
Those with healthy feet will have thick and supple soles to help prevent wear and tear that stems from walking or stepping on surfaces that are uneven or that differ in temperature. However, if you ignore the overall health of your heels, it can cause them to become cracked and dry. As you can imagine, cracked heels can be painful when pressure is applied, resulting in breakage or bleeding more easily than healthy heels. Open wounds anywhere on the foot can result in an infection that needs to be treated promptly to avoid further issues.
#6 Heel Pain and Plantar Fasciitis
One of the most common causes of heel pain is plantar fasciitis. This condition consists of the inflammation of a thick tissue band that extends across the bottom of each foot, connecting the toes to the heel bone. Most people experience stabbing pain during the first steps in the morning. With more movement, the pain typically decreases, but being inactive for long periods can cause it to flare up again.
Although the exact cause of plantar fasciitis isn't well understood, it is commonly seen in those who are avid runners or those who are overweight. Changing your gait to accommodate for the pain can result in problems in the knee, hip, or back, so it's advisable to seek the guidance of a doctor.
#7 Ingrown Toenails
An ingrown toenail is a common condition that occurs when the side or corner of a nail grows directly into the surrounding soft flesh. It can occur in the big toe or any of the toes, resulting in inflammation, swelling, pain, and in some cases, an infection. Many people can take care of an ingrown toenail on their own, but if the pain becomes too severe or it is spreading to other areas of the toe, it's important to see a doctor to avoid further complications.
Those who have diabetes or poor blood flow are at a greater risk of complications from this common foot issue. Wearing shoes that force your foot into a claw-like position, cutting toenails too short, injuring a nail, and certain medical conditions are common factors.
#8 Flat Foot
Flat foot, also referred to as flat feet, is a common condition that puts excess pressure on the arches of the feet when pressure is applied. When those with flat feet stand up, the feet automatically point outward, causing the soles of the feet to touch the floor.
This condition might occur if the arches aren't properly developed during childhood. An injury that occurs later in life or simple wear and tears from older age can also cause flat feet to develop. This condition is typically painless, and if you aren't experiencing pain, no treatment is required. However, if you feel limited by this condition and are experiencing discomfort, you'll want to see a specialist.
#9 Achilles Tendinitis
Overuse of the Achilles tendon can result in Achilles tendinitis. In this condition, the Achilles band, which connects the calf muscle to the heel bone, becomes injured. This is a common injury in avid runners who have increased the distance or intensity of their runs without the proper buildup. Middle-aged people who enjoy sports such as tennis or basketball only occasionally might also experience this condition.
Caring for this condition is relatively simple; you can stretch daily, strengthen your calf muscles, wear the right shoes, and gradually increase your activity level. Those suffering can also get custom sports orthotics to alleviate any pain.
Another form of inflammatory arthritis is gout. This is a very painful condition that usually impacts one joint at a time, namely the big toe joint. Flares refer to periods of more intense pain, and gouty arthritis might stem from repeated flare-ups that can last anywhere from days to weeks, months, or even years. Common symptoms of gout include intense pain, redness, swelling, or a feeling of heat. It's commonly caused by a condition called hyperuricemia, meaning there is too much uric acid in the body. Although there isn't a cure for this condition, it's possible to manage this condition through the right medication and self-management strategies.
Bunions are bony bumps that develop at the inside base of your big toe. They are the result of some of the bones in the front part of your foot moving out of place, forcing your big toe to get pulled toward the smaller toe. This causes the joint at the base of your toe to stick out, sometimes resulting in sore or red skin that develops over the bunion. Ideally, those with bunions will wear roomy shoes as opposed to tight and narrow shoes as this can aggravate the bunions. It's also possible that bunions develop as the result of a foot deformity, the natural shape of your foot, or due to a medical condition such as arthritis. Some bunions don't require medical treatment, but in other cases, the need for surgery sometimes exists.
#12 Bone Spurs
Bony pieces and projections that develop along the edge of your bone are called bone spurs (osteophytes). This condition often develops in your joints where the bones meet one another. In some people, bone spurs don't cause any signs or symptoms, and people might not be aware that they are suffering. However, other people experience pain and even a loss of motion in the joints.
Specific to the feet, bone spurs develop due to stress or pressure that's applied to a bone over a long period of time. In the process, the cartilage in this area could become destroyed, prompting your body to create new bone in its place. If a bone spur develops on the heel, it is referred to as a heel spur. Regularly icing the spurs can help reduce swelling and NSAIDs are used to relieve pain. Supportive shoe inserts can help.
Bursitis is a painful condition that occurs when the bursa—a small, fluid-filled sac that cushions and reduces friction between tissues such as bones, tendons, and muscles—becomes inflamed. Bursitis commonly affects major joints like the shoulder, elbow, hip, and knee, leading to pain, swelling, and stiffness in the affected area. It can be caused by repetitive motions, prolonged pressure, injury, or underlying conditions like arthritis. Treatment for bursitis typically involves rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications, with more severe cases possibly requiring physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, or, rarely, surgery.
A hammertoe impacts the second, third, or fourth toes. Those who suffer from this condition experience a bent toe at the middle joint, often in the mallet toe. As a result, the shape resembles a hammer. During their development stage, hammertoes are more flexible and responsive to simple treatments such as a change in footwear or strengthening exercises. However, when left untreated, hammertoes can become worse and require surgery to fix.
Most hammer toes are painful, particularly when wearing tight shoes such as high heels or other shoes that are tight. Symptoms include redness, swelling, difficulty walking, an abnormal bend in the toe, the inability to straighten the toe, or the development of a corn or callus on just the middle joint of the toe.
#15 Claw Toe
Just as the name suggests, having claw toes means that your toes curl either upward or downward depending on the joint misalignment. Some people also experience toes bending downward and underneath the foot. Over time, this "claw" digs into the soles of your shoes and results in painful calluses.
Without treatment, claw toes grow stiffer and become more difficult to treat. It's important to seek medical assistance as your doctor may recommend splinting or taping your toes to hold them in place. Other remedies might include wearing more comfortable shoes, stretching your toes with your hands, or using physical therapy to strengthen and exercise your toes.
#16 Stress Fractures
Tiny cracks that develop in the bones are called stress fractures. They typically develop from overuse or repetitive force including running long distances or repeatedly using the same motion when walking. Osteoporosis can also be the trigger for stress fracture development as this is a weakened bone condition.
Anyone can sustain this type of injury, but people such as track and field athletes or anyone in the military running long distances with packs on their back are at a heightened risk. You may also develop one if you rush into an activity and don't work your way up to a longer distance or increased pace. To treat a stress fracture, you'll need to get X-rays, a bone scan, or an MRI. Wearing a boot or using crutches can help your bones heal.
#17 Fungal Infections
Fungal infections in the feet are referred to as athlete's foot and this is a type of ringworm. It appears as an itchy, burning, or stinging rash on top of infected skin. It's most common that athlete's foot develops between your toes, but it can also appear on the tops and soles of your feet.
Though this condition can impact everyone, it most commonly impacts men over the age of 60. Risk factors include obesity, diabetes, an overall weak immune system, or tissue damage on the foot. The best cure for athlete's foot is over-the-counter and prescription antifungal creams, ointments, gels, sprays, etc. Unfortunately, this condition rarely goes away on its own.
Corns are thick and hardened skin layers that develop as an automatic response to your skin protecting itself from pressure or friction. It's common for these to develop on the bottoms of your feet, and you can remove dead skin as it develops to keep corns and calluses at bay.
Although similar, corns and calluses differ. Corns are smaller and deeper, and they have a hard center that's surrounded by swollen skin. Calluses are commonly developed on pressure spots and are often larger than corns. If your corn becomes increasingly painful or there's excessive inflammation, make an appointment with your doctor.
As mentioned above, calluses differ slightly from corns although they are similar. In most cases, calluses are not painful and they usually develop in pressure spots such as the heels or the balls of the feet. You won't need to seek treatment for calluses unless they are causing you a lot of pain or you simply don't like the way that they look. To minimize the appearance of calluses, you can soak them in warm and soapy water to help soften them. You'll then be able to remove the softened skin with a pumice stone or washcloth.
#20 Ankle Sprains
Another foot and ankle problem that the elderly experience is ankle sprains. This occurs when the ankle twists, rolls, or turns in an uncomfortable and unnatural position. As a result, the ligaments stretch beyond their normal limits.
There is a wide range of severity when it comes to ankle sprains, some are minimal and heal relatively quickly while others are more intense and require a longer recovery period. Elevating the ankle, consistently using ice, and taking over-the-counter medications can help heal ankle sprains, but if the pain persists, make sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
#21 Skin Cancers
One particular type of skin cancer that impacts the feet is foot melanoma. This foot condition of the elderly starts with a melanoma that can develop on any part of the foot, including underneath the toenails, between the toes, or the soles of the feet. The best way to stay on top of foot-related skin cancer is to regularly examine your feet for any moles or changes in moles. If you notice that a mole has grown in size or texture, you'll want to see your doctor to ensure it is taken care of properly.
Caring for Older Adults’ Feet
Elderly foot care is an essential part of staying healthy. Here are some tips to consider.
As you or your loved one's age, make sure there are regular checks for foot-related changes. Any open sores, cracks, misshapen toes, discolored toenails, or other noteworthy changes should be taken into consideration. The feet should be regularly washed to avoid infection and the toenails should be kept an appropriate length. Consider hiring a third-party service if you have a loved one who needs assistance regularly that you cannot provide.
Some studies reveal that many seniors wear shoes that are too small for them for reasons including a change in foot shape, not realizing that their feet are growing, or simply because of aesthetics. Make sure that your loved one has plenty of support and avoids wearing potentially damaging shoes.
These are specialized inserts placed inside the shoe. They can be purchased at the store or prescribed by a podiatrist. These inserts can help reduce pain and change the way the foot is positioned while standing or walking.
Foot care for seniors might include custom prosthetics if there has been limb loss. If needed, make sure your loved one has the right prosthetic device that they can take care of to ensure their foot health and overall health remain in check.
Don’t Allow Foot Pain to Impact Your Golden Years
Even though geriatric foot problems are widespread, they don't need to take away your independence. By taking the right care of your feet, you help to improve your mobility and overall health. At Prime Care, our professionals are invested in the health of our patients. If you're interested in learning more about how we can help, book an appointment with us today!