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Foot Pain

Published November 24, 2020

We're sorry to hear you have foot pain!

Please keep in mind that this guide is not intended to replace a face-to-face evaluation with your doctor. The goal of this guide is to provide information while awaiting evaluation with your doctor or additional information after you have seen him or her.

Foot pain may develop for a number of reasons -- fracture and infection are among the most serious while sprains and arthritis are among the most common. There are rare causes of symptoms that will not be included here and would require more detailed evaluation than this guide can provide.

Severe pain, swelling, bruising, or inability to bear weight are "alert" symptoms that could indicate serious injury to a bone or ligaments. When accompanied by fever, an infection becomes a major concern. However, most people with foot pain have no serious or dangerous cause. In fact, many have pain due to poorly fitting or tight shoes; for women, high heels only make a tight shoe more uncomfortable. Try changing your footwear to something with more cushion, support and room for your feet -- and read on to learn more about the causes of foot pain.

Certain symptoms suggest a serious cause of foot pain that requires prompt attention. It's important to ask questions about these symptoms first.

Did your pain begin after a significant injury, such as a fall or car accident?

Yes, my pain began just after a significant injury.

No, my pain did not occur after a severe blow or injury.

Along with foot pain, have you noticed swelling or redness in your foot (or feet)?

Yes, I have noticed swelling and/or redness.

No, I have no swelling or redness, thank goodness!

When walking leads to leg pain

Updated November 1, 2020

It might be peripheral artery disease, an underrecognized and potentially dangerous condition.

If you notice a painful cramping sensation in your calf when you walk, you might blame a cranky knee joint or write it off as a sign of aging. But this symptom may signal a more serious condition, known as peripheral artery disease, or PAD.

PAD occurs when fatty deposits clog the arteries outside of the heart (most commonly in the legs) and reduce blood supply in that part of the body. The hallmark symptom is leg pain that occurs with exercise, called intermittent claudication (from the Latin word claudicatio, meaning "to limp").

Stress-induced brain activity linked to chest pain from heart disease

Updated November 1, 2020

Research we're watching

Doctors have long known that mental or psychological stress can lead to angina (chest pain or discomfort caused by inadequate blood to the heart). Now, new research reveals a direct correlation between angina and stress-related activity in the brain's frontal lobe. The study included 148 people with coronary artery disease with an average age of 62. All underwent brain and heart imaging tests done in conjunction with mental stress testing, which involved mental arithmetic and public speaking. Imaging tests were also done under "control" conditions, which featured simple counting and recalling a neutral event. Researchers monitored the participants for angina during the tests; they also assessed angina rates again after two years.

Activity in the inferior frontal lobe area of the brain during mental stress was linked to the severity of self-reported angina, both during the brain imaging and at the two-year follow-up. A better understanding of how the brain reacts to stress may be an important consideration for doctors who treat angina, according to the study's lead author. The study was published online Aug. 10, 2020, by the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.

Use topical painkillers for strains and sprains

Updated November 1, 2020

In the journals

Hold off on taking pain pills to treat a sprained ankle, strained neck, or bruised knee. A new guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends certain topical (gels, liquids or patches placed on the skin) painkillers as the first line of defense for musculoskeletal injuries in areas other than the lower back. The new guideline, published online Aug. 17, 2020, by Annals of Internal Medicine, was based on a review of more than 200 studies including a total of 33,000 patients with short-term injuries (pain lasting less than four weeks). It recommends using a topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) with or without menthol (which creates a cooling sensation). Topical NSAIDs come in gel, liquid, or patch forms; diclofenac gel (Voltaren Arthritis Pain) and aspirin cream are available without a prescription. Topical NSAIDs may have fewer risks than oral NSAIDs, which raise risk for stomach ulcers and bleeding, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and heart attacks. However, if topicals don't work, the guideline says you can move to oral NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or the non-NSAID painkiller acetaminophen (Tylenol); acupressure; or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. The guideline recommends against using opioids such as tramadol (Ultram) except in severe cases.

Image: Victor_69/Getty Images

What is chronic inflammation?

Updated October 1, 2020

Ask the doctor

Q. I have suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for many years, and recently I also developed diabetes. My doctor says they are both related to inflammation. What is inflammation, and how can two such different diseases be connected to it?

A. Inflammation is both an old and a new idea in medicine. Roman physicians 2,000 years ago noted that wounds that were healing and joints that suffered from arthritis (like yours) became red, warm, swollen, and painful. It was like they were on fire: inflammare was the verb for setting on fire. But why did a wound become red, warm, swollen, and painful? They had no idea.

Opioids after heart surgery: A cautionary tale

Updated October 1, 2020

Research we're watching

A recent study found that nearly one in 10 people who received opioid pain relievers following heart surgery continued to take them for three to six months — a time point when no one should still be experiencing pain from the operation.

The study included nearly 36,000 people with private health insurance who had a coronary artery bypass graft (known as CABG or bypass surgery) or a heart valve replacement between 2003 and 2016. People who were prescribed more than 40 5-mg tablets of oxycodone (Oxycontin, Roxicodone, others) or an equivalent amount of a similar drug were at a much higher risk of prolonged opioid use than people who were prescribed lower doses. Other factors that increased a person's odds of taking opioids long-term included having CABG, being female, or having a history of chronic pain or alcoholism.

Can home remedies help my sciatica?

Updated October 1, 2020

Ask the doctors

Q. Is there anything I can do at home to ease sciatica pain?

A. Sciatica is a condition that causes pain that radiates down the buttock and the leg. It occurs when one of the two sciatic nerves in your body, which run from your back down to your toes, is compressed or irritated. Most often the problem is triggered by a ruptured disc or arthritis in the lower spine. This condition can be quite painful, but there are some strategies you can use at home to ease your discomfort.

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