Genetically speaking, my dad has given me a lot of good stuff. I’m tall, with blue eyes and clear skin. There are also things that I’m less than thrilled by, like his curly hair and short temper. But there’s one little genetic gift that I’m quite glad I didn’t get—hammertoes. One look at those gnarly phalanges is enough to make even a family member cringe.
Women are particularly plagued by foot problems, possibly from wearing high heels. But regardless of sex, there are a lot of funky problems that can befall our feet. They may keep podiatrists in business, but for those who have to suffer with these ailments, it’s no cakewalk.
These troubling protrusions are among the most common foot problems. Bunions develop when the bone on the side of the foot near the big toe enlarges and grows outward. Bunions are usually accompanied by a misalignment of the big toe, which causes it to grow sideways toward the second toe. Bunions get progressively worse and are usually a result of improper foot function, or an effect of an anatomical characteristic like flat feet. They tend to run in families, so many podiatrists believe there is a genetic component to bunions. Not only can bunions be painful, but they can also make it difficult to find shoes that fit, so many sufferers choose to have surgery to realign the enlarged bone with the crooked toe.
When a bunion occurs on the outside of the foot, near the fifth toe, it’s called a “bunionette,” or “Tailor’s bunion.” Bunionettes have the same causes—a misaligned toe and an enlarged bone—but luckily they are a bit smaller.
They may not threaten overall health, but they are uncomfortable and can be very difficult to get rid of. Plantar warts are small, fleshy bumps with small black pinpoints that occur on the soles of the feet as the result of exposure to a strain of human papillomavirus. The black specks are actually small, clotted blood vessels, and not “wart seeds,” as some old wives’ tales speculate. The virus that causes plantar warts thrives in warm, moist environments and places like public showers and locker rooms are the prime places to pick it up. Everyone’s immune response is different, so only some people contract the virus. Even so, it’s wise to take precautions while walking barefoot in communal locker rooms, swimming pools, and showers. Teenagers seem to be particularly susceptible to plantar warts, making gym class an even more traumatic experience than it already is.
Some people try to eradicate plantar warts by freezing, lasering, or cutting them off. Wart removal can be frustrating and may require several different approaches. Surprisingly, a 2002 study found that the most effective way to get rid of plantar warts was the “duct tape method.” Even some doctors recommend this home remedy of wrapping feet with duct tape to irritate the warts and force the immune system to attack them.
These irritating lumps of hardened skin are the result of friction, as toes rub against your shoes. Corns usually occur on the knuckle of the fifth toe because of improperly fitting shoes or an incorrect gait. Over-the-counter foot products can alleviate the pain and discomfort of corns and protect the area from further abuse. Podiatrists can excise a corn and some patients choose to file their corns down using emery boards. Unfortunately, corns can come back, since cutting out the corn itself won’t change the underlying problem causing it. Wearing roomier shoes or changing the way you walk is the only surefire way to get rid of corns.
It’s not just a quaint relic from the nineteenth century, like chamberpots or bustles. This unusual ailment, caused by a buildup of urate crystals, usually affects the joint of the big toe, although it can hit any extremity. Uric acid is a natural part of elimination, but if the kidneys don’t process it properly, crystals develop and accumulate in the joints. The symptoms of gout—intense pain, redness, and swelling in the big toe—usually occur without warning and can last for weeks before subsiding. The excess uric acid is often a result of a diet high in meat; red meat, cured meat, and organ meat are the common culprits. Herring, mackerel, anchovies, and asparagus are also foods that can contribute to gout, as can medications like low-dose aspirin and non-rejection drugs for transplant recipients. Most gout sufferers are men, especially those who are already overweight, with conditions like hypertension and diabetes.
I definitely dodged a genetic bullet by not inheriting the family hammertoes. They happen when the toe bends unnaturally and takes the shape of an inverted “V,” with the second toe joint contracted like a hammer. They can be genetic or due to improper footwear. Poorly-fitting shoes that cram the toes together and force them to bend at awkward angles can aggravate the problem. When hammertoes first develop, splints, orthotic inserts, and therapy to correct the muscle imbalance are effective remedies. However, once hammertoes become more rigid, or if they’re genetic, surgery is the only way to correct them. Hammertoes usually do require treatment, since they can cause corns, calluses, and lots of discomfort.
We do subject our feet to massive amounts of torture—squeezing them into tiny shoes, and then walking and standing for hours. Although we tend to forget the favors our feet do for us, we definitely notice when something’s amiss, whether it’s from wearing the wrong shoes or just being born with the wrong genes. At least there are usually straightforward solutions for what ails your feet. Life’s too short to experience pain every step of the way.