Foot and ankle problems can keep you from getting around easily by causing pain, irritation, or discomfort. While some foot issues have mild symptoms and are mostly cosmetic, others can make it difficult to live a healthy, active lifestyle.
It’s important to pay attention to foot and ankle issues as they can get worse over time if left untreated. While some problems can be treated with over-the-counter products and at-home options, others require a doctor’s care. Here’s a look at what you need to know about some of the most common foot and ankle problems.
Common Foot and Ankle Problems
Problem Most Common Symptom
Plantar fasciitis Pain and stiffness on the bottom of the heel, usually worse in the morning
Bunion Enlarged, painful bump near the base of the big toe
Morton's neuroma Pain in the ball of the foot
Corns & calluses Areas of thick, hard skin
Toenail fungus Nails that are discolored, thickened, crumbly, or loose
Ingrown toenail Redness, swelling, pain, or infection near the toenail
Hammertoes Joints of the toes are bent downward
Plantar warts Flat growths on the bottom of the feet that may be uncomfortable to walk on
Athlete's foot Redness, itchiness, scaling, or peeling skin, usually between the toes or on the bottom of the foot
Achilles tendinitis Pain in the back of the heel or ankle that increases with activity
Ankle sprain Pain or swelling in the ankle
Ankle arthritis Pain, stiffness, and swelling in the ankle joints
Ankle fracture Swelling, pain, a popping noise, or difficulty putting weight on the ankle
When there is increased stress on the arch of the foot, microscopic tears can occur on the plantar fascia, a band of tissue that stretches from toe to heel. It’s a common condition that many people experience at some point. Runners and people who stand most of the day are especially at risk.1
Plantar fasciitis usually causes pain and stiffness on the heel bone. The symptoms are usually worse in the morning when you start to walk after getting out of bed.
Try stretching your feet and calf muscles in the morning and periodically throughout the day. You can do this by standing on a step on the balls of your feet and slowly lowering your heels below the step. Wear supportive shoes, rather than walking barefoot.
See your doctor if the pain doesn't go away or gets worse to make sure your pain isn't caused by another condition.
A bunion occurs when the big toe starts to point inward toward the second toe. This causes a bump near the base of the big toe. The joint swells and a bursa (fluid-filled sac) forms under the skin where the joint sticks out. Bunions can be painful and become aggravated by activity and wearing tight shoes or high heels.
Bunions can cause pain at the joint near the base of the toe. As the bunion worsens, it may cause increased swelling and redness on the bump.
Mild discomfort can usually be relieved by wearing wider, more comfortable shoes. Gel bunion pads can be used to help cushion the bump and relieve pain.2
Check with your doctor if these at-home treatments don't provide relief. Surgery is sometimes an option to correct the joint abnormality.
Morton's neuroma occurs when a nerve at the base of the toe becomes irritated and swells up. It usually develops between the third and fourth toes because of pressure or trauma to the area. Tight, narrow shoes can aggravate the condition.
Pain from a neuroma is usually felt on the ball of your foot. You may also feel pain or numbness in your toes.
Try wearing footwear that's wider and has low heels. Shoe inserts can help relieve pain by reducing pressure around the nerve.3
If you still have pain after trying these tips, speak with your doctor. Injections of a corticosteroid medication can help decrease inflammation of the nerve. If the condition worsens, surgery may also be an option to release tissue around the nerve.
Corns & Calluses
Corns and calluses are areas of hard, thick skin that develop due to rubbing or irritation. Corns tend to develop on the toes while calluses usually appear on other areas of the foot, particularly the soles.
Corns usually look like a yellow ring of skin around a firm center. They may cause pain, especially with the pressure that comes from walking or tight shoes.
Calluses tend to cover a larger area with thick skin that’s more evenly distributed. They aren’t usually painful but can cause some discomfort when walking.
You can treat calluses at home by gently rubbing them with a pumice stone after a bath or shower to remove some of the dead skin. For corns, try using round corn pads to cushion the area. Ask your doctor before using pads with salicylic acid, as they are not appropriate if you have certain conditions, like diabetes.4
If your corn doesn’t go away or continues to cause pain, check with your doctor.
Toenail fungal infections (onychomycosis) tend to occur in a warm, moist and dark environment, like inside a shoe. They affect about 10% of the population.5 People with athlete’s foot, diabetes, or poor circulation are particularly at risk.
A fungal infection in your toenails may cause the nails to become discolored, thickened, crumbly, or loose. The nail may start to separate from the nail bed.
Your doctor can diagnose a toenail fungus based on appearance as well as a sample viewed with a microscope. Toenail fungal infections are usually hard to completely cure but rarely cause complications.
Topical treatments, including efinaconazole and tavaborole, are available but not considered as effective as oral drugs. Oral drugs, such as terbinafine and itraconazole, have a higher success rate but can potentially cause liver damage and drug interactions. For this reason, physicians may not treat mild cases of toenail fungus.6
An ingrown toenail, known as onychocryptosis, occurs when the toenail pierces the skin and continues to grow into the skin. It could be caused by shoes that are too narrow or by trimming a nail into a curve rather than straight across.
As an ingrown nail progresses, it may cause redness, swelling, and pain. If it leads to infection, pus may form under the skin near the nail.
Make an appointment with your doctor to help remove the nail and treat any infection. If the ingrown toenail is in its early stages, the doctor can lift it away from the skin and place sterile cotton under the nail. If it’s more advanced, the doctor will use a local anesthetic before cutting the skin to remove the nail.7
A hammertoe is a deformity of the toe caused by an imbalance in the muscles or tendons. The knuckle bends so the toe is angled downward rather than lying flat. It can be caused by ill-fitting shoes, heredity, or arthritis.
People who have hammertoe can experience pain at the top of their knuckle, redness, swelling, and pain when moving the toe.
At-home treatment can help ease the discomfort of hammertoe. Mild cases where the feet are still flexible may be corrected with gel pads and wider shoes to minimize pressure and irritation.
If the condition doesn’t correct itself, your physician may suggest surgery. This involves lengthening the tendons and possibly removing bone to allow the toe to straighten. 8
Plantar warts (plantar verucca) are caused by a virus. Plantar means the bottom of the foot, but warts can occur other places on the foot and toes as well. Sometimes they are mistaken for calluses because they are covered with thick, hard skin and flattened by the pressure of walking.
Plantar warts are hard and flat with a rough surface. They can be painful when you walk on them.
Many warts will go away on their own within a year or two. If you’re not sure if you have plantar warts, make an appointment to ask your doctor. If the warts are painful, your doctor may recommend using a chemical like salicylic acid to remove it. Some chemicals must be applied by a doctor because of the risk of burning the skin around the warts. Your doctor may also suggest cryotherapy to freeze the warts.9
Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) is a common skin condition that can affect everyone, not just athletes. It’s caused by a fungus that can be transmitted from person to person, particularly in places where people walk barefoot, like communal showers.
Athlete’s foot causes redness, itchiness, scaling, and/or peeling skin, usually between the toes or on the bottom of the feet. In severe cases, it can cause painful cracking of the skin.
Antifungal medications can be applied topically. These include over-the-counter medications like itraconazole and miconazole. Athlete’s foot often recurs, so these medications may be need to be used periodically. If your symptoms don’t improve with topical medications, your doctor may suggest taking oral antifungal drugs, such as itraconazole and terbinafine.10
Achilles tendinitis involves inflammation of the Achilles tendon, located in the back of the heel. If the tendon stays inflamed long enough, it can lead to thickening of the tendon from scar tissue. In some cases, it can become a long-term problem or can lead to rupture of the tendon.
Symptoms include pain and stiffness in the back of the ankle, especially when your foot stretches back with climbing stairs and walking uphill. You may also experience swelling along the area of the tendon.
Check with your doctor if you have pain or stiffness that doesn’t improve with rest. For mild cases, you can take an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen). Your doctor might suggest wearing orthotics like heel lifts or wedges that help relieve pressure on the tendon.
If these conservative treatments don’t alleviate symptoms after six months, you doctor may suggest surgery to repair the damaged tendon.11
Ankle sprains are very common, whether from playing a sport or just hurrying to catch the bus. About 23,000 ankle sprains happen in the U.S. every day.12 It usually happens when the foot rolls inward and stretches or tears the ligaments of the outer ankle.
When you have an ankle sprain, your symptoms can range from mild to severe pain, swelling, or bruising. You may have difficulty walking or bearing weight on that ankle.
If you have a sprained ankle, make an appointment with your physician to check for broken bones or ligament damage. If the sprain is mild, your physician may suggest at-home treatment using R.I.C.E. therapy (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Keep weight off the ankle and use an ice pack for 20 minutes a few times a day.13
When using ice or ice packs, make sure you cover the ankle with a thin cloth to protect it from frostbite. Wrap the ankle lightly with an elastic bandage and elevate your ankle above your heart level to help with swelling.
Ankle arthritis involves inflammation of the joint, caused by cartilage wearing down at the joint where the foot connects to the shin. As this cushioning breaks down, the bones in the ankle start to rub together leading to joint damage.
The symptoms of ankle arthritis include pain, stiffness, and swelling in the ankle joint and difficulty walking.
If you suspect that you have ankle arthritis, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor may order X-rays to look for signs of arthritis. Nonsurgical treatments include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, braces to support the ankle, and steroid medication injections. Your physician may suggest surgery if your symptoms don’t improve with nonsurgical treatments.14
An ankle fracture usually occurs when the ankle is twisted forcefully in an accident like a fall, vehicle accident, or sports injury. Ankles can also get stress fractures, which are hairline cracks in the bone caused by repeated force or overuse.
Symptoms of an ankle fracture include swelling, pain, and difficulty putting weight on ankle. If a fracture happens suddenly, you may hear a popping sound.
It’s important to see your physician right away if you think you have an ankle fracture. Early treatment and rehabilitation can help ensure that you have a complete recovery.
Your treatment options may be surgical or nonsurgical, depending on the injury and the amount of displacement. With nonsurgical treatment, you’ll likely wear a boot or cast, and later go through rehabilitation. If you need surgery, you may have screws and plates inserted to help the bones heal in position.15
A Word From Verywell
Make an appointment with your doctor for any foot or ankle issues when you’re unsure what’s causing it, when your symptoms aren’t improving, or if they’re getting worse. With the correct diagnosis and treatment, you can get back on your feet and return to a healthy, active life.