If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
Your foot is composed of 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than one hundred ligaments, muscles, and tendons that work together to provide stability, balance, and support as you move. When any one of those become damaged, it's harder for the foot to function as it's designed. If you develop pain in your foot or ankle, you quickly realize the important role your feet play in enabling you to live an independent life doing the things you enjoy.
Anyone can potentially experience foot or ankle pain in their lifetime, whether you're an adolescent athlete or an older adult. Sometimes pain is caused by an injury, like an ankle sprain, while other times repeated wear and tear over time causes painful conditions, like arthritis or tendonitis in the foot. Certain parts of the foot are at a greater risk of injury because of the amount of pressure they carry. Your Achilles tendon, for example, can hold up to 10x your bodyweight, making it more susceptible to damage.
If you have intense pain in your feet or ankles, you don't have to live with it. There is a wide range of treatment options that can alleviate your pain and get you back to the activities you love, whether that's taking your dog for a walk or running 5 miles.
Seek care if your pain is limiting your ability to participate in your daily activities.
Foot or ankle pain can often be attributed to a broken bone (fracture), arthritis, tendinitis, or deformity. Everybody has a different pain tolerance, and sometimes pain in the foot may subside with rest and time. But when severe pain in your feet or ankles prevents you from doing the things you enjoy, you should talk to an orthopedist with specialized training in treating the feet and ankles. It's better to get your feet evaluated earlier before your pain worsens and causes further damage. A foot and ankle specialist can recommend a variety of non-invasive treatment options or determine if you may need surgery to relieve pain.
A weight-bearing x-ray may help determine the cause of your pain.
At your orthopedist's office, a foot and ankle expert will start your evaluation with an x-ray that can rule out certain conditions, like arthritis or stress fractures. The imaging can also determine if there is any misalignment in the bones of the foot which may contribute to discomfort. At MedStar Health, we also have access to advanced weight-bearing computed tomography (CT) technology, which produces an incredibly detailed image of your feet while you're standing. This kind of imaging technology isn't available everywhere, and we’re proud to be ahead of the current standard of care for our patients.
While imaging helps us easily diagnose if you have a broken ankle or a fracture in your foot, sometimes we can't determine the exact cause of your foot and ankle pain with the x-ray alone. That's why we'll ask questions about your symptoms, the location and frequency of your pain, and the kind of pain you're feeling. For example, heel pain may indicate a different issue than a sharp pain near your big toe.
Common causes of pain in the feet and ankles.
Men and women of all ages are susceptible to unexpected foot and ankle injuries, like sprained ankles, torn ligaments, and foot fractures. Likewise, anyone can develop painful conditions in the feet caused by repetitive motion, such as plantar fasciitis or rheumatoid arthritis. Abnormal anatomy, like having flat feet, can also cause pain in the ankle joints, on the bottom of the feet, or on the inside of the foot, depending on the individual. Men tend to rupture their Achilles heel five to six times more than women. On the other hand, women may be at an increased risk for bunions or a pinched nerve on the ball of the foot or toes (called Morton's neuroma) which causes radiating pain between the third and fourth toes. Narrow shoes with tall heels can contribute to these conditions.
In other cases, untreated ankle or foot injuries may lead to problems in the foot. For example, people may experience ankle instability if they had a sprained ankle in the past that didn't heal correctly. This can cause the ligaments to stretch out, which makes the ankle feel like it's "giving way", or loose. As a result, they are more likely to sprain it again or develop early arthritis, which may require more aggressive treatment.
Work with your doctor to find out the best plan of action for you.
During your visit with one of our fellowship-trained foot and ankle experts, we'll determine the best course of action for relieving your ankle or foot pain. Your treatment plan will be customized to your specific needs and goals, and we may need to attempt a few different things to see what works best. We try to alleviate your discomfort with nonsurgical options when possible, but other times, an operation may offer the most relief and prevent something from getting worse.
We start with conservative treatment options, when possible.
There are a variety of nonoperative things we can try to reduce your discomfort, depending on the source of your foot or ankle pain. For example, some people benefit from orthotic inserts that offer additional foot and ankle support. Orthotics can alleviate stress and pain in the foot, and you can get some customized to the unique shape of your foot for the most effectiveness. A foot or ankle brace may also help to prevent your pain from worsening.
Concentrated injections of anti-inflammatory medication may be an effective way to manage any arthritic pain in the ankle. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications may help to reduce swelling, tenderness, and pain. Voltaren™ topical gel is known to alleviate pain in and around the foot caused by arthritis or tendonitis. Physical therapy can also be helpful in improving things like your gait which may fix the root cause of your pain, depending on your condition.
What to do when surgery is necessary.
Sometimes it's obvious when surgery is necessary, like bad ankle fractures. Other times, a painful condition like flat foot doesn't require urgent surgery, but it may end up being the best option if conservative treatments don't help. In those instances, your decision to undergo elective surgery is a personal one that should consider the pros and the cons, and we can help you make that call.
Sometimes foot or #AnklePain resolves itself, but other times surgery may relieve pain when other treatments failed. On the #MedStarHealth blog, foot and ankle expert Dr. Walter Hembree explains your options: https://bit.ly/3GmzbPB.Click to Tweet
Recovery time varies by individual and surgery type, but a successful outcome requires a commitment to following your doctor’s instructions. Some, but not all, procedures will require you to stay off your feet for the recommended period of time and not bear any weight on the leg you were operated on. You'll need to plan ahead for things like getting a ride (if you aren't able to walk, you can't drive), and navigating your home if you have stairs. But sacrificing your independence for a few weeks may ensure you're able to return to the activities you love without pain.