Podiatry is a medical specialty focused on issues affecting the feet, ankles, and lower legs. A podiatrist can treat existing issues or help people prevent problems. During a podiatry visit, a podiatrist will examine your foot and may check your gait (the way you walk), your range of motion, and the fit of your shoes. Podiatrists treat a number of illnesses and injuries and may prescribe treatment using medication, orthotics, physical or occupational therapy, cryotherapy, or surgery.
Podiatrist Training and Expertise
Podiatrists are known as “doctors of podiatric medicine” (DPM). They complete medical training separately from medical doctors (MDs) at a specialized four-year podiatry school, followed by a three-year residency, and they must be licensed in the state they practice.
Common Foot-related Problems
You have more than two dozen bones in your feet, making up a quarter of all the bones in your body. Your feet keep you balanced and support all your weight. It’s no wonder that seemingly small foot problems can take you out—and they can be very common.
Here are some of the most common foot-related problems:
- Blisters – blood-filled bumps on the skin, these can be mild or signs of an infection
- Bunions – bony bumps that form on the bottom joint of the big toe
- Calluses and corns – sometimes painful formations of thickened or hardened skin, resulting from repeated friction
- Cracked heel skin – most commonly mild, but can be severe, requiring medical help, especially if you have diabetes
- Flat feet or fallen arches – low or no arch in the feett, which can lead to pain in the feet, legs, knees, or back
- Fractures – broken bones can commonly occur in the toes, ankles, heels, or the metatarsal bones (bones in the middle of the foot)
- Hammertoe – abnormal bend in the middle joint of the toe, causing a painful, downward deformity in the shape of the toe
- Heel spurs – calcium deposits on the bottom of the heel bone, which can protrude, causing pain and further injury
- Ingrown toenails – when the corner of the toenail grows into the surrounding toe skin, most commonly on the big toe
- Pinched nerve – also called a neuroma, a growth of nerve tissue between the toes, causing discomfort and swelling
- Plantar fasciitis – inflammation of the ligament that connects the toes to the heel
- Sprains – often occurring in the ankle, sprains are torn or stretched ligaments
- Toenail Infections – infection may occur in the skin around the toenail or may be caused by a fungus
- Ulcers – open sores on the feet which can become deep and infected without medical intervention
- Warts – plantar warts are painful, hard growths caused by HPV
Some health conditions increase the likelihood or severity of foot-related issues. One of the major risk factors for foot problems is diabetes. Diabetes can cause problems with blood flow to the feet and legs, damaging nerves and leading to serious complications. If you have diabetes, paying attention to your foot care and foot health is very important. Without treatment, diabetes complications can become severe, even leading to amputation.
Arthritis is joint inflammation, which can cause pain and stiffness. Because there are 33 joints in each foot, arthritis is a common cause of foot and ankle pain. A podiatrist can help care for arthritis of the foot or ankle, using treatments ranging from medication, orthotics, or even surgery.
Some other health conditions that can increase the risk of foot-related problems include:
- high cholesterol
- poor circulation
- heart disease
Foot Injuries that Require Urgent Care
The health of your feet is related to your overall mobility and balance. If you ignore feet-related problems, it could lead to issues in your legs or back, or put you more at risk for falls. Also, problems with your feet may indicate undiagnosed conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, thyroid issues, or circulation problems. Getting checked out by a podiatrist for your foot issue is a good first step, as a podiatrist can help address symptoms in your feet and refer you to further screening or testing for underlying conditions.
You may want to contact a podiatrist for an appointment if you have foot or ankle pain, toenail discoloration or pain, warts, corns, bunions, or cracked or scaling skin.
Some foot injuries may require urgent care, including fractures, sprains, or other injuries resulting from trauma. If not treated properly, a foot injury can lead to permanent deformity, early development of arthritis, infection, poor blood flow to the foot, or, in some of the most serious cases, amputation.
Contact a podiatrist for an urgent appointment if your symptoms include:
- severe pain
- visible deformity
- numbness or tingling
- signs of infection, such as redness, tenderness, or heat in the foot and a fever of over 101° F
- open wounds or sores
- inability to bear weight on the foot or feet
- pain in both feet
If you have diabetes, it’s especially important to pay attention to foot problems and it may be a good idea to see a podiatrist right away even for issues such as calluses, cracked toenails or cracked skin, foot pain, numbness, unpleasant foot smell, calf pain, or after a minor foot injury. Any of these may lead to serious diabetic foot complications and may require urgent care with a podiatrist
Healthy feet are not a luxury—they’re a necessity. We use our feet a lot, so mild pain or discomfort in the feet is not unusual, but if you have persistent or severe foot problems, it’s important to seek medical help.