Most of us take our feet for granted until they hurt, or become more visible in summer when we walk barefoot or wear sandals. Then it’s hard to ignore ugly corns and misshapen toes.
Nice feet are important to good looks whether we swim, run on the beach or laze in the sand. And when we play tennis or take more rugged exercise they need to be healthy too for few things can spoil a holiday faster than sore or swollen feet.
Fortunately, with a little care, many of these problems can be prevented. In other cases a simple treatment is all that is required to put your feet in good shape again. Here are 8 tips to keep your feet nice and soft at home.
1. Tired feet
When you’re on holiday and your feet are painfully tired, even swollen or bruised, from too much walking or playing, it is too late to switch to that comfortable old broken-in pair of shoes you left at home! But you want to be part of the next day’s fun so this is what you do:
Take off your shoes and lie flat on your back. Prop your feet on the wall or against a solid item of furniture so that they are about half a meter above your heart. Keep them up for five minutes or more, then trace the letters of the alphabet in the air with each big toe in turn.
This exercises all the muscles and pumps the blood out of your lower extremities (the accumulation of excess blood in the feet, which results from strenuous activity as well as from sitting in a car or plane for extended periods, is what causes them to hurt).
The next step is to wash them with soap in warm water.
Never use hot water, for if blood is backed up by a bruise or other minor hurt, heat will only increase the congestion as well as add to the discomfort.
Washing not only soothes the feet, it also carries away dead skin, perspiration and bacteria that can lead to infection. If a foot is bruised or injured, cool it with ice cubes wrapped in a towel. This reduces swelling and pain.
Finally, dry and powder your feet, and put shoes back on if you have any more walking to do before bedtime. Walking barefoot or in loose slippers or sandals is not advisable. Tired feet need all the support possible.
Many people jog to toughen up their legs before a hike or other strenuous activity, but it’s difficult to do the same thing for your feet.
The best blister prevention is proper footwear. Boots and sports shoes should be large enough to accommodate two pairs of socks; a thin wool or silk sock next to the foot to dissipate friction and a thick outer sock that cushions the foot and retains warmth even when wet.
If you still find a blister at day’s end, leave it alone overnight.
This will allow it to fill with its full quantity of fluid and before starting out in the morning, break the blister. It will break anyway, so you may as well do it scientifically. Puncture it with a needle, flame sterilized, then let it drain. It is unwise to break a wide, deep blister under calloused skin on the sole of the foot; just make a doughnut from a moleskin pad to shield it.
Cover friction blisters on the heel with a piece of gauze the size of the blister exactly, then apply a wider piece of moleskin. Treat pressure blisters on the ball of the foot or on top of the big toe in the same way, but cover the gauze with a thicker moleskin that provides a necessary cushion. This is obtainable from a chemist. Avoid bandage strips because the ends loosen and roll up.
3. Crooked toes
This common, partly inherited problem has two forms: when the end (or distal ) joint “freezes” with the toe pointing down, it is known as a mallet toe; when the second (or proximal ) joint stiffens in a bent upward position, it is called a hammer toe.
Both defects often afflict the same toe, which quickly becomes sore when the joint is pushed up against a too-narrow or tight-fitting shoe; a painful corn often forms at the contact point.
Relief is available, however, from both the pain and the embarrassment of crooked toes by having a simple corrective operation, without loss of function in the toe.
Most foot specialists can correct mallet and hammer toes but some will do it only to relieve pain and restore function.
4. Runner’s injuries
The strains and sprains that occur when you first start running are due to disuse of your muscles. These pains can be overcome by cutting back a bit, then slowly building up speed and distance.
When you begin running 30 to 45 km a week, you may suffer overuse injuries which are different. The steady pounding of feet against the hard ground gradually breaks down the foot’s musculoskeletal structure. The long arch often collapses.
These overuse injuries, which afflict long-distance runners, heal slowly. Plastic or leather arch supports may forestall further injury, but some runners require personally fitted supports molded to their feet. Exercise to stretch the back leg muscles and strengthen the front ones is also important.
Sit on a high table edge with legs extended and a handbag hanging over your feet. Flex your ankles 15 or 20 times, pointing toes straight ahead, then toward the ceiling to stretch the backs of your legs.
Add weight gradually, putting cans of soup into the handbag until your ankles are lifting 2.3 kg (5 lbs). To strengthen your front leg muscles, use the same weighted purse but sit farther back on the table. Bend your knees, then raise your legs until they’re perfectly straight. Lower legs slowly, then repeat 15 or 20 times.
If arch supports and exercise fail to prevent further injury, consult a doctor who specializes in caring for runners’ feet.
5. Athlete’s foot
This itchy, scaly, fungal disease afflicts non-athletes as readily as it does athletes. While the fungus is commonly found in locker rooms and swimming pools, it turns up anywhere that people go barefoot. Constant washing and powdering of the feet will not prevent the disease.
It starts between the toes and the misery may spread widely as bacteria entering the skin through cracks made by fungus, cause secondary infections. The fungus may also lie dormant under the toenails for months, only to revive when the hot, moist circumstances it likes recur.
Several methods are available to suppress athlete’s foot, however. The simplest is to wear sandals or walk barefoot, particularly on the beach. Sand and salt water, as well as medicinal drying agents like aluminium chloride, help relieve the itch since the fungus wilts when it is dry. Drying carefully between your toes also discourages the fungus.
The best news about athlete’s foot is that drugs are available to treat it. One, tolnaftate, is sold over the counter. Three others may require a doctor’s prescription but are included also with other items in prepared treatments sold as chemists lines. They are clotrimazole, miconazole and haloprogin.
6. Corns and calluses
Corns can be extremely painful, and like calluses, which are similar thickenings in the skin, they can be unsightly as well. Fortunately, you can do something about them.
Skin thickens and hardens when squeezed from inside by enlarged bone heads, and from outside by tight-fitting shoes or hard walking surfaces.
If you redistribute the pressure, the skin will thin out and may regain its soft, natural feel. Different better fitting shoes will help. When walking, take care not to thrust your feet against the insides of your shoes.
Doughnut-shaped pads and other insulators may suffice for an occasional corn, and an arch support can redistribute your weight to soften a stubborn callous.
If you can’t wait for this slow, natural healing, you may use a pumice stone or emery board that wears away but does not cut the skin. If you cut your own corns or callouses the risk of infection is high.
Soft corns which form between the toes may need surgical treatment. The underlying bonehead may need to be filed and cut away, but surgery should not be undertaken lightly and could be dangerous to people with diabetes whose feet are poorly supplied with blood.
These operations should be done only by a surgeon in a hospital.
When you walk on the beach bare feet can be cut or torn easily and many such injuries need medical treatment each summer.
The first step in treating cut and lacerated feet is to staunch the blood flow. To stop the bleeding the foot should be elevated above the level of the heart.
Lie down, put your foot up in the air and get someone to press on the wound. The bleeding usually stops within 10 to 15 minutes. You can then walk to where the wound can be cleansed. Wash it with a hose or other gentle source of fresh, running water.
A cut more than a centimeter in length may need stitches to close it, and even a shorter cut that is gaping should be evaluated professionally. Torn and mangled skin and any wound more than skin deep also needs medical attention.
Even a thin nail, driven in by body weight, can cut a deep tendon or nerve. Judging a wound’s depth is difficult even for surgeons, so it is advisable to go to the hospital whenever there’s any doubt. Don’t delay, for it is only within the first six to eight hours after the injury that a doctor can clean, explore and sew a wound with little risk of infection.
If you decide the wound is small enough to treat yourself, wash it well with soap and water, then cover with a clean bandage. Watch for signs of infection, such as pain, redness, swelling and pus, which may require medical care. Small, clean foot wounds should heal quickly.
8. Foot odors
Feet smell embarrassingly because of perspiration and bacterial and fungal infections. Anxiety, obesity and athletic activity can make matters worse. Yet simply keeping your feet clean may not make them smell sweet.
Cleanliness is important. But in addition you may need to avoid wearing sneakers and other closed athletic shoes, or else choose the suede-top variety which breathe better. Most sports stores stock these.
If you must wear sneakers or running shoes, wear cotton socks. They absorb sweat and keep bacteria from settling into the canvas. If you use sneakers regularly get two pairs so that one can dry and air out while you are wearing the other. Washing the shoes by machine helps too, but watch out for shrinkage.
Dust your feet and the inside of all your shoes with tan astringent foot powder that contains alum or aluminium chloride. Use astringent soap for daily foot washing.
If you need professional help for your feet, ask a doctor or friends to recommend a podiatrist. Or see an orthopaedic surgeon. Podiatrists and orthopaedists are trained to give your feet the special care they deserve. Nice and soft feet will help you feel better, and have more fun, this summer!