How Your Toenails Can Be a Sign of Your Health & More Tips From a Podiatrist

Feet hurt? Before playing doctor by prowling the Internet to identify your problem, consider leafing through the newly released book, “Ask the Foot Doctor: Real-Life Answers to Enjoy Happy, Healthy, Pain-Free Feet.”

Written by podiatrist Dr. Doug Tumen, founding partner of Hudson Valley Foot Associates in Kingston, N.Y., the book serves as a guide to better understanding how to care for your feet, offering hundreds of solutions for a range of foot issues.

Written in a question-and-answer format, it covers topics including who can get a fungus nail, what triggers a gout attack, and the treatment for arthritis in the big toe. If the book doesn’t cover your foot ailment, email Dr. Tumen at question@askthefootdoctor.com. He says he welcomes additional questions.

How much wear and tear do your feet actually take? According to Dr. Tumen, the average American walks four times the circumference of the globe over a lifetime, putting stress on the foot’s 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles.

To the good doctor, foot health is something people don’t think enough about until they experience pain or some foot-related problem. “It’s not on the top of everybody’s radar since, in general, people think their feet are supposed to hurt,” says Dr. Tumen.

“People have their Apple watches, Fitbits and pedometers, and they’re taking 10,000-plus steps a day in New York,“ says Dr. Tumen. With every step they take, people put the pressure of one to one and a half times their body weight on their feet, and the stress can take a toll on one’s feet.

Women, Dr. Tumen says, may notice over time the development bunions, hammertoes and a thinning of skin on the bottom of their feet. “Had they checked this out more regularly, they would be able to get protective inserts and the appropriate care,” he says.

While people visit their doctors for routine exams, feet are often not part of the physical, he says. “Even when you go for a physical, people often keep their socks on,” he added. “No one watches you walk.”

Good foot health begins at an early age, advises Dr. Tumen. “It begins immediately. A lot of parents take their children to a pediatrician when they’re concerned about feet, but they should be going to a podiatrist. Often, pediatricians [advise us that] foot issues will be resolved when [children] get older, but quite often what could have been fixed at a younger age, such as a foot that turns in or out, is harder to fix as they get older.”

As autumn approaches, Dr. Tumen has some easy-to-follow tips to promote better foot health. “Have multiple pairs [of shoes] and change them frequently,” he suggests. “If you stay in the same shoe all the time, they don’t have the chance to breathe. And you will also have the same pressures and forces going [repeatedly] through your foot in the same shoe.”

Here, Dr. Tumen answers a series of foot health questions.

Are certain shoes bad for our feet?

Dr. Tumen: Yes, there are many types of shoes that can cause pain and even damage your feet. Everyone’s feet are different and what may be comfortable for one person may cause foot pain for another. Most important, your shoes should be comfortable, and if they cause pain, they should be replaced. Wrong-size shoes are responsible for a lot of people’s foot pain. Keep in mind, out feet grow as we age. Most people recognize as we age, we often shrink in height, but our feet . . . spread and expand. Get your feet measured, but don’t go by size alone, go by comfort. High heels and flats each have their challenges when it comes to the feet. If a shoe makes your foot hurt, ditch them. Remember, function over fashion is always the best way to show some love to your feet.”

Does exercise do more harm than good when it comes to our feet?

Dr. Tumen: “Exercise, a good diet and sleep are the trifecta for our health. So no matter what condition your feet are in, exercise is essential. For those that can, which is most people, walking is the simplest way to get your exercise in. Just a 20-minute walk is proven to have great cardiac benefits, improve your circulation, help lose weight, in addition to easing stress and improving mind-set. There are certainly instances where foot pain can limit exercise, and some modification of exercise is necessary. Often, I tell a patient to ride a stationary bike, use an elliptical machine, swim or take an aqua aerobics class. It is rare that exercise is going to damage feet, and the benefits are too great, so, as the saying goes, just do it.”

Some serious diseases are associated with our feet, including diabetes. What do our feet tell us about our overall health?

Dr. Tumen: “Your feet can actually be a wonderful window into your body. It’s common for a podiatrist to be the first physician to diagnose a patient with diabetes. Rheumatoid arthritis and other types of arthritis such as psoriatic arthritis, are commonly first spotted in the feet. PAD, peripheral arterial disease, is going to show up in the feet and legs as pain with walking or at rest. Skin texture, skin color, toenail changes are also windows. X-rays we take of the feet are often the first a patient may know that they have osteopenia, osteoporosis and weakening of the bones. And, of course gout, which is elevated [levels of] uric acid in the blood, is most commonly seen as a red hot, swollen and painful great toe.”

Want more?

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