health

Cold feet, sore heels and white toenails: Here's what your poor feet are trying to tell you.

There’s a moderate to high chance if you’re reading this right now, you’ve either had or have an issue with your feet. Or, your feet are fine, but curious.

From foot pain and cracked heels to numb feet and sore nails, not getting along with your feet is pretty common. To be fair, we’d be grumpy too if we had to carry us around every day wedged and squished into all sorts of punishing shoes.

Yet, how many of us actively go and get professional help when our feet are figuratively killing us? The answer is not many, but perhaps it’s time we should start.

No, your feet and toenails aren’t a window into your health (or your soul) and studying them won’t explain why you’re always tired and hungry. But according to Dr Frances Henshaw, registered Podiatrist, researcher and Lecturer at Western Sydney University, there are some common and uncommon health issues or conditions that can have an affect on our feet.

Some are weird or a bit gross, and many are fairly normal. And when it comes to feet, there’s no silly questions. Case in point, Dr Henshaw once found a toy soldier stuck in an open foot wound (yep).

So naturally, we asked her for all the information you need to know about foot problems, including the ones you really ought to get checked out.

Cold feet.

According to Dr Henshaw, consistently cold feet can be a sign of Raynaud’s.

“Raynaud’s is a really common condition a lot of women get in their thirties and forties, where they get cold hands and feet. This is because the blood vessels in those areas tend to close up when it’s cold and it affects your blood supply,” she told Mamamia.

In most cases, Raynaud’s isn’t serious and can be managed with the usual things: good socks, slippers, feet warmers or having a hot shower/bath.

feet
If you've got cold feet all the time, sadly, good socks are your best bet. Image: Getty.
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Numb feet and foot ulcers.

Because our feet are the furthest away from the rest of our body, cuts or sores tend to heal slower than they would elsewhere. Same deal with numbness, which can be a symptom of Raynaud's, but generally speaking, has to do with your how far your blood needs to travel to reach your feet.

There's also the fact they don't hang out in the cleanest of places - on grass, at the beach, walking over dirty floors - making infections more likely. But what worries Dr Henshaw about serious numbness, and foot ulcers, wounds or cuts that take an abnormal amount of time to heal, or don't at all, is Type 2 Diabetes.

"Undiagnosed Type 2 Diabetes is really common in Australia - up to half a million people don't know they've got it. I must say, over the years, I've had quite a few patients who've not known they had diabetes come to me with numb feet or a foot ulcer, and we've found out they have diabetes."

"We know people with diabetes have a 25 per cent risk of getting non-healing wounds and we know if they get them, and even if we heal them, there's a high risk they'll return, 40 and 70 per cent. They've got more chance of not being alive in five years than those with breast cancer and prostate cancer, so it's quite devastating."

For the average person, any foot cuts or wounds will heal if kept clean and bandaged properly to avoid infection. For diabetics, Henshaw said it's really important to check your feet regularly, or ask someone to check them for you if you're unable. It's also all about prevention and getting on top of things like heel cracks before they split and progress into something nastier.

Sore feet, foot pain and heel pain.

People who work in professions like hospitality, retail, hairdressing, teaching and healthcare, to name a few, would be familiar with pain that comes from standing on your feet for hours. So how do you know when your foot pain is serious?

Dr Henshaw said, "There's a lot of different types of foot pain but my advice is, don't ignore it for too long because foot pain can turn into knee pain and then hip pain and then back pain, and then you're in a lot more pain than you started with".

"The most common foot pain I see is heel pain. It could be occupational, from overdoing it when you haven't exercised before, plantar fasciitis [when the tissue that holds the arch of your foot up is under strain], or sometimes, it's something unusual. For example, quite often, people have extra bones in their feet or the bones are fused together, causing pain. When someone comes to me for foot pain, I wouldn't routinely X-ray that person, but I remember an occasion when someone had heel pain and after doing all the usual things, we found they had a rare tumour in their heel that showed up in an MRI."

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Another major cause of foot pain is being overweight and talking about it sensitively and with compassion, in Dr Henshaw's opinion, is "a health professional's duty".

"Weight is the elephant in the room. It is related to a lot of foot problems because there's excess force going through your feet. But a lot of people who are overweight already know they are, and know they should do something about it, so by raising it sensitively, patients are informed of the information and their options so they can decide on their own."

If you've got foot pain, go and see your GP or a podiatrist. As Dr Henshaw said, the answer could be as simple as good footwear advice and some painkillers to get you through, but it's important to get an accurate diagnosis.

foot pain
There's some foot pain not even a hot bath can fix. Image: Getty.

Ingrown toenails.

Anyone who's had an ingrown toenail before will tell you it's hell. Dr Henshaw said there's two reasons you get them.

"The first reason is that the toenail is bigger than the space you've got to for it to grow in, so it gets stuck in the sides. The second reason is when people cut their toenails, they cut them a bit wrong and they might poke too much down the side, so they leave a spike of nail that grows in. The latter is especially common in the teens who go a bit crazy with the scissors."

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You can't help having a naturally too-big toenail, but they almost always cause recurring issues and you a heck of a lot of pain. So, you have two options: Ongoing maintenance, or surgery.

"You can go to the podiatrist and have them cut back the nail every few weeks, like you might get a haircut or your eyebrows done, but if you're getting persistent problems and infections, you're better to bite the bullet and have the sides of the nails permanently removed, which is a permanent solution. This can be done by a podiatrist under local anesthetic, and cosmetically, they don't look too dreadful afterwards."

In other words: You won't be left with a landing strip down the middle. A skilled podiatrist can keep your nail looking 'normal'.

Spots on your feet and lines on your toenails.

You know how when you find a weird spot or freckle and make a note to get it checked, but ultimately forget? Make an appointment to get your skin checked today.

In Australia, melanoma is the third most common cancer, and the most common cancer for young Aussies aged 15 to 39. It's a great reason to get any new or suss-looking spots anywhere on your body checked by a professional, your feet included.

Dr Henshaw said while melanoma on feet aren't common, we do know people can get skin cancer on the soles of their feet from sunbathing with feet facing the sun. Plus, not all skin cancers and melanomas on your feet look like you might expect them to.

"If you've got a melanoma under a toenail, it will start growing as a long, thing line as it spreads and the nail grows. Then there's amelanotic melanomas, which are not brown, they're kind of white."

Yes, the chances of developing a skin cancer on your feet are slim, but just because something's rare, doesn't mean you shouldn't get your concerns checked out by a specialist. And when you do go to a skin cancer clinic, remember to remove any nail polish so they can check for anything under your toenails.

 

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Thick toenails, yellow toenails and white toenails.

It's extremely common to see yellow discolouration on your toenails if you've been wearing nail polish for a long time. Know what else is common? Fungal infections.

"If your nails grow thick, are yellow and quite crumbly, it's likely to be a fungal infection. People who go to nail salons are also prone to getting another type of fungal infection on their nail that looks white and/or blue. These can usually be treated quite quickly," Dr Henshaw said.

"If they grow thick, are yellow and have ridges in them, that might be a sign of an underlying problem such as psoriasis. People who have psoriasis in their nails often get mistaken for having a fungal nail, which is why seeing a specialist is so important."

Clubbing and ridges of the nails.

Ridges or grooves in nails are also commonly caused by psoriasis. As for clubbing, cardiovascular diseases or problems with a person's hearts or lungs can show up in nails. But as Dr Henshaw  pointed out, "with most of these conditions, you wouldn't be diagnosed through your nails, you'd know about them already".

Overall, the biggest thing Dr Henshaw wants people to reconsider about their feet is - they are important and in many cases, pain and discomfort can be treated.

"We rely on our feet to get us through life, so when something goes wrong with them, pay attention. If your car breaks down, you wouldn't keep driving it. It's the same with our feet."

Feature image: Getty.

This article should be helpful, but not a substituted for professional, personalised medical advice. If you're concerned about anything to do with your health, please consult your health professional.

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