Far too often, our feet get ignored. We don’t really think about them at all on a day to day basis—that is, until they start hurting, or sweating, or stinking, or changing colors!
But if you take some time to really get to know your feet and check in with them often, you might be surprised at what you find.
As a matter of fact, your feet can tell you a lot about the general state of your health. They can even reveal some early warning signs for more serious systemic conditions and help you get the care you need in a timely fashion—if you’re paying attention, that is.
So, what are your feet trying to tell you?
Tingling Toes and Other Strange Sensations
Do you feel like you’re always walking on pins and needles, or experiencing strange sensations, intermittent shocking pain, or numbness?
These are classic symptoms of peripheral neuropathy—and may also suggest a possible diabetes diagnosis. Diabetes and neuropathy are both progressive diseases that will get worse, and start to affect more and more systems, if you don’t take any steps to manage or treat them.
The list of potential diabetic complications is a very long one, including poor circulation, retinopathy (with the possibility of blindness), cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and more.
Neuropathy, too, can continue to get worse until your feet go completely numb, and potentially impair motor control. This leads to issues with balance and may prevent you from detecting wounds or injuries until it’s too late to stop an infection.
Constantly Cold Feet
Feet that are always cold could indicate poor circulation to the feet. That is also one of the common complications of diabetes and could be further related to neuropathy, which we talked about above.
Another potential cause of cold feet is hypothyroidism. If you have this condition, the thyroid gland in your neck, which is responsible for regulating body temperature and metabolism (among other things) isn’t able to produce enough hormones.
Unregulated hypothyroidism can go on to cause many more problems, including chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain, weight gain, memory problems, and more.
Swollen Feet and Ankles
If your feet and ankles are always swollen even when you don’t have any obvious signs of pain or a recent injury that would have caused it, there’s a decent chance you have high blood pressure. Because high pressure makes it harder to pump blood through your system and back to your heart, it tends to pool in the lower extremity.
This condition can gradually increase your risk of severe cardiovascular complications such as heart attack or stroke if not managed via medications and/or lifestyle changes.
In rarer situations, swollen feet and ankles might be indicative of a more aggressive problem, such as congestive heart failure, liver failure, or kidney failure. Either way, you should schedule a check-up with your doctor.
Indentations in Toenails
If your toenails appear sunken and pale, or are covered in spoon-like indentations, it could be sign of anemia.
In this condition, your red blood cells aren’t able to supply your body tissues with the necessary amount of oxygen for healthy operation. This could be due to not having enough iron in your system, certain vitamin deficiencies, or even other diseases such HIV, kidney disease, and others.
Other symptoms of anemia can include fatigue, irregular heartbeat, chest pain, headache, and dizziness. Like many other conditions highlighted in this blog, anemia tends to get worse over time if not properly treated or managed, and can have very serious or even fatal consequences.
Red Streaks Under the Nails
If you notice these, the most likely explanation is splinter hemorrhages—or in other words, small blood vessels (capillaries) that clot and break.
Splinter hemorrhages are a significant warning signal for endocarditis, a much more serious infection that attacks the inner lining of the heart. Left unchecked, it could lead to heart failure or death.
You are more likely to develop endocarditis (and by extension splinter hemorrhages) if you have an existing or previous heart condition, or if you have a suppressed immune system.
Other Nail Discolorations
Nail discoloration could indicate a wide range of potential health problems, depending on the hue. Yellowish nails could indicate a fungal nail infection, but could also be a sign of lymphedema or lung disease. Black nails are usually the result of bruising or bleeding under the toenail—but it could also be melanoma, an extremely aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer. White nails could reflect a protein deficiency.
There are too many possibilities to list here, but suffice it to say if your toenails are starting to turn strange colors it’s better to get them checked out.
Constant Foot Cramps
Lower extremity cramping is usually, although not always, a signal of either a vitamin deficiency or dehydration. In particular, minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium are crucial for healthy muscle function, and a lack of these nutrients can often lead to cramping.
Of the three listed, calcium deficiencies are by far the most common due to magnesium and potassium being more prevalent in a standard Western diet.
In rare cases there may be something more severe going on, such as brain injury or nerve condition.
Listen to What Your Feet Are Telling You
If your feet look strange, feel strange, or just plain hurt, please don’t ignore them. They are trying to tell you something!
Pain is always a sign that something is wrong, and will almost always get worse if you try to ignore it.
At Freeland Foot and Ankle Clinic, we provide comprehensive and caring treatment options for just about all painful foot and ankle conditions, from bunions and hammertoes to ankle sprains, nail infections, heel pain, and more.
We can also help you find out if your foot problems are linked to a more serious systemic issue, and ensure you get the testing and treatment you need.
So, listen to your feet! And if you have any problems, be sure to give our office a call at (989) 695-6788 so we can help. You can also request an appointment, or more information, using our online contact form.
Help Them Create a Safe Home Environment
Foot troubles greatly increase the risk of accidental trips, balance-related falls, and other injuries. The risk is compounded if your loved one has to navigate a proverbial “minefield” of obstacles and challenges at home.
So, help them make their home space a little bit safer. For example:
- Minimize the need to ascend or descend stairs. For example, you might consider moving sleeping quarters and clothing to the main floor if possible, or adding a ramp to the front door if there isn’t one. Add sturdy railings to staircases if none exist.
- Clean up clutter around the house, especially in walkways. Get rid of tangles of cables, low-lying furniture, throw
rugs,or anything that could be considered a trippingor slipping hazard.
- Make sure everyday items (clothes, food, etc.) are close at hand and accessible without stretching or straining.
- If your loved one is recovering from
a surgeryand will be back on their feet within a few weeks, stock up on enough consumables (toilet paper, toothpaste, pantry items, etc.) to last them until they’re walking again, to cut down on shopping trips.
- Buy night lights and place them in every room to help with navigation.
Help Them with Hygiene
Keeping feet clean and dry is important no matter who you are. But if you’re recovering from surgery or dealing with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, or other foot issues, it’s particularly important. Again, this is one important way you can not only assist your loved one, but show how much you care.
Make sure they are washing their feet on a daily basis; assist them if they need help. If your loved one suffers from neuropathy, make sure they use a thermometer to make sure the water temperature is safe.
After washing, make sure they dry thoroughly (don’t forget between the toes!), apply a moisturizer, and put on a clean pair of socks. Don’t let feet soak or stay wet after washing!
You may also need to help with toenail trimming, especially if their nails are thickened. Use a large, sturdy pair of toenail clippers to make sure you get enough leverage for a clean cut. Do not cut their nails too short, and don’t round the corners—go nice and straight across.
Finally, if your loved one does not have diabetes or any other conditions that could compromise immunity, you may gently file down existing corns or calluses with a pumice stone. Never, ever, under any circumstances attempt to cut into them with a blade, or use any kind of sharp object or topical chemical.
Help Them Get Moving
Sometimes it can be hard for people who are hurting to find the motivation to exercise. But it’s important to stay as active as possible, regardless of one’s level of fitness and mobility.
Try to engage your loved one in some kind of physical activity, as they are able. Maybe that means a fun outing to the park or the store; maybe it means a quick walk around the house or even some stretches from a seated position.
In the short term, getting the blood flowing to feet and legs can help ease any existing swelling, cramping, or pain. And of course, over the long term, getting more exercise will help your loved one prevent or at least slow the progression of conditions like neuropathy and diabetes (not to mention other systemic diseases), and can help the achieve higher levels of mobility, self-reliance, and satisfaction.
Help Them Find Appropriate Footwear—and Make Sure They Wear It!
A person with feet compromised by neuropathy or diabetes should never go barefoot—even in their own home. The risk of injury and infection is just too great.
The best socks are white (that is, they contain no dyes), seamless (to prevent scratching or snagging), and made from a moisture-wicking fabric (such as an acrylic fiber).
Shoes should be comfortable, supportive, and spacious enough to wiggle toes. Specially made diabetic shoes with seamless interiors and extra depth to accommodate custom orthotics may be wise for those who need it.
If you need to take your loved one shoe shopping, try to go near the end of the day. The idea here is that by evening time, their feet are likely to be a little swollen and at their largest extent. Fitting new shoes at this time ensures that they’ll fit even when feet are a little swollen.
Other handy tips that might help here:
- Always measure feet first, since they can widen and flatten over time (even through old age)
- Velcro is easier than laces, especially for older adults—not just to put on, but also to adjust for swelling or inserts.
- Heavy rubber soles have more traction and stability than leather or plastic.
Make Sure They’re Seeing Their Podiatrist
A foot specialist should be an important member of your loved one’s medical team if he or she has diabetes, neuropathy, balance issues, any history of foot problems, or are over age 65.
We can provide:
- Foot care maintenance tasks that you aren’t able to handle on your own—everything from trimming toenails and calluses to more extensive treatment for major issues like bunions and ingrown toenails.
- Screening for the early signs of diabetic foot complications, nerve issues, and other systemic problems.
- Fall risk assessments.
- Preventative and proactive care options like therapeutic shoes, arch supports, or custom orthotics.
- Emergency care for foot wounds.
- Emergency care for other kinds of injuries, including broken bones, sprains, etc.
If your loved one has not had a comprehensive foot checkup in more than a year—especially if they have diabetes—book them an appointment to
And if you notice any severe concerns—like a budding ulcer—contact us immediately and we will do everything we can to see you as soon as possible.
You can call the Freeland Foot & Ankle Clinic at any time at (989) 695-6788, or fill out a contact form so that a member of our staff can follow up with you soon.