"The foot has almost as many bones as the hand and wrist, so it's a complicated piece of real estate," says Rick Olderman, a physical therapist in Denver, and author of Fixing You: Foot & Ankle Pain. "Yet we don't pay much heed to our feet until there are problems."
For women, this may be particularly true. According to a recent survey, women are nine times more likely to develop a foot problem than men are, likely because nine out of 10 women wear shoes that are too small for their feet. The result? More than seven out of 10 women develop conditions like bunions, hammertoes, or other painful foot deformities—all of which can take the spring out of your step.
What's a walker to do—especially if she's an unabashed high-heel lover? "The first step in fixing chronic foot pain is to understand why you're having it," says Olderman. Here, the five most common issues that keep women from pounding the pavement, and what to do for happy feet once again.
"This is by far the most common problem I see in my middle-aged patients," says Jeffrey A. Oster, DPM, a podiatrist in Newark, Ohio. Plantar fasciitis is an overuse syndrome that causes painful inflammation of the band of fibrous tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot (called the plantar fascia). If you're somewhere in the 40- to 65-year-old range, you may be more likely to experience heel pain, especially if you're carrying around extra pounds. "The force on your feet is about 120 percent of your weight," Dr. Oster says. "Over time, that causes the tissue in the foot to become less elastic," leading to pain.
The fix: Massage and stretch your feet and calves.
Bunions and hammertoes
These painful deformities of the big toe (bunions) and smaller toes (hammertoes) can be genetic, but they get worse if you consistently wear too-tight shoes, says Suzanne C. Fuchs, DPM, a holistic podiatrist and fitness specialist in New Hyde Park, New York.
The fix: Choose the right shoes.
While most of us think of these areas of thick skin as simply unsightly, calluses are pressure spots that can be painful when you walk, says Dr. Oster. They're actually the body's way of preventing painful blisters from developing. Without a callus, the pressure and friction would irritate your skin to the point of creating those painful, fluid-filled bubbles you know as blisters. However, that doesn't help if your calluses—oftentimes on the ball of the foot, the heel, or the top of bunions or hammertoes—keep you from walking or running around comfortably.
The fix: Soak, then soften.
Your Achilles tendon, which attaches to your heel bone at the back of your foot, can become irritated and inflamed when it's overused, says Dr. Fuchs. The result is tendonitis, and runners are particularly susceptible, she says, as are those who regularly wear high heels. Other potential, though not as common, causes include inflammatory illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout.
The fix: Rest, ice, repeat.
This condition causes pain in the ball of your foot that commonly radiates toward your third and fourth toes, says Dr. Fuchs. "It can feel as if you're standing on a pebble that's stuck in your shoe," she says. As if you needed another reason to curse the creation of high heels: They can be a trigger for this painful condition. So can high-impact sports like tennis, running, or, yes, walking. The repetitive pounding on hard surfaces can cause trauma to the nerves that lead to your toes. People who have bunions, hammertoes, high arches, or flat feet are also at higher risk for Morton's neuroma.
The fix: New shoes, custom orthotics, and possibly cortisone injections.