Foot Pain: Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
June 3, 2022

An estimated 25% of the population is affected by foot pain at any given time.

Foot pain can cause distress and make it difficult to accomplish everyday tasks, including walking and caring for others.

There are many different forms of foot pain, some of which can cause pain in the heel, toes, arch, instep, or sole of the foot.

The right treatment plan for your foot pain will vary depending on its cause.

This article will cover some of the most common causes of foot pain and how your healthcare provider can help diagnose and treat the condition.

Causes of Foot Pain

Many factors can cause foot pain, including trauma, overuse, and certain medical conditions.

Though anyone can get foot pain, certain people are at elevated risk, including:

  • Athletes or highly active people
  • Older individuals
  • Overweight individuals
  • People who stand for long periods of time (e.g., individuals who work in the service and healthcare industries) 

Broken bones or stress fractures

There are 26 bones located in each foot, making the feet especially susceptible to broken bones and stress fractures. 

Fractured or broken bones can happen as a result of:

  • A fall
  • Trauma
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Direct blow
  • Abuse
  • Repetitive forces (such as those caused by physical activities, including running)

Below are some of the signs that you may have a broken bone:

  • A visibly out-of-place limb or joint
  • Swelling, bruising or bleeding on the foot
  • Intense pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • A bone protruding from the skin
  • Having difficulty moving your foot

Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bones that can be caused by overuse, but other conditions can also cause stress fractures (including osteoporosis).

The onset of pain with a stress fracture is usually gradual and less intense than that of a broken bone.

Arthritis

Arthritis refers to inflammation or degeneration of one or more joints.

It can occur due to an autoimmune disease, broken bones, infection, and other causes. 

There are more than 100 forms of arthritis, many of which can affect the foot.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and increases with age.

The types of arthritis that most commonly affect the foot and ankle are:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Posttraumatic arthritis

Tendon damage

Damage to the tendons in the foot—the flexible, fibrous cords that attach muscle to bone—can cause significant foot pain.

Tendonitis refers to severe swelling of the tendon that can happen after repeated injury to the ankle.

Symptoms of tendonitis include:

  • Mild pain after exercise that worsens gradually
  • Stiffness that improves after the tendon warms up
  • Swelling

Rest, stretching, massage, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, bandages, and other supportive devices can help to improve symptoms.  

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Bursitis

Bursitis is a swelling or inflammation of the bursa, a sac-like structure found throughout the body between bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

There are many causes of bursitis, including overuse injury, infectious disease, trauma, and inflammatory disorders. 

Though bursitis often occurs in the elbow, shoulder, and hip, it can also affect the heel and big toe of the foot. Bursitis of the heel is often caused by too tight or ill-fitting footwear and is frequently encountered in dancers and figure skaters.

Reducing pressure on the area and some over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help to alleviate the pain. 

Gout

Gout is a type of arthritis that happens when uric acid builds up in the blood and causes inflammation of the joints. In most cases, gout causes significant pain that only affects one joint.

The big toe and ankle are two joints most commonly affected by gout.

Symptoms include:

  • Swollen and painful joints
  • Pain that comes on suddenly, usually at night
  • Joints that appear warm, red, tender, and swollen
  • Fever

Diabetic neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage that is caused by diabetes.

Specifically, diabetic neuropathy occurs when nerves are damaged from chronic high blood sugar.

There are several types of diabetic neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy typically affects the feet and legs, though it can also affect the hands and arms. A

bout one-third to one-half of people with diabetes have this type of neuropathy.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy in the feet are:

  • Burning
  • Tingling sensation
  • Numbness
  • Extreme pain, even when the food is lightly touched
  • Weakness
  • Trouble sensing temperature on your foot
  • Changes in the way you walk
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of muscle tone in the feet
  • Pain when you walk
  • Difficulty sensing movement or position

Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis can cause significant pain around the heel of the foot.

This condition occurs when the plantar fascia, the thick tissue on the bottom of the foot, becomes swollen or inflamed, usually due to overuse.

The pain and stiffness caused by plantar fasciitis is often worse in the morning or after standing or sitting for long periods of time.

The pain can also increase when walking, running, climbing stairs, and barefoot walking.

Bone deformity

Some people have a bone deformity in the foot they were born while some develop it later in life.

A bone deformity can also cause foot pain.

Haglund’s syndrome is one type of deformity that affects the back of the heel bone and soft tissues of the foot, causing the bony section of the heel to become enlarged and the soft tissue near the back of the heel to become irritated

Other causes

Other possible causes of foot pain include:

  • Bunions
  • Calluses and corns
  • Hammer’s toes
  • Fallen arches (or flat feet)
  • Morton neuroma
  • Sprains

Diagnosis

If you’re experiencing new or worsening foot pain, it’s important to reach out to your medical provider for a diagnosis.

In order to diagnose the underlying cause, your provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and health history.

Additional tests your provider may recommend are:

Treatment 

Treatment of your foot pain will vary depending on the type of foot pain you have, and its underlying cause, which is why consulting with a medical provider is essential to determining the right course of treatment for your symptoms.

Treatment options may include:

  • Rest
  • OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Applying ice or heat (depending on your provider’s recommendations)
  • Stretching exercises
  • Physical therapy
  • Orthotics, or shoe inserts
  • A splint or cast (in the case of a broken bone)
  • Removal of plantar warts
  • Foot surgery

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When To See a Medical Provider

It’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing sudden, severe, or prolonged foot pain that doesn’t go away on its own.

Additional symptoms that warrant medical attention include:

  • Pain following an injury to the foot
  • A foot that becomes cool to the touch, pale, blue, or numb
  • Feet that are red, hot, and/or swollen
  • Joints that are red, hot, and/or swollen
  • New or open sores or ulcers that appear on the feet
  • Foot pain that does not improve with at-home treatments for 1 to 2 weeks
  • Fever
  • Fainting
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Other severe symptoms

Speaking with a healthcare professional can help you to identify the underlying cause of your leg pain and which treatment options are right for you.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different types of foot pain?
There are many different types of foot pain as well as different causes of foot pain. Some of the most common causes of foot pain include broken bones, stress fractures, arthritis, tendon damage, plantar fasciitis, bursitis, and gout. They can cause pain in the heels, toes, and soles of the foot.
How do I know if my foot pain is serious?
If your foot pain is sudden or severe, it’s important to reach out to a medical provider as soon as possible for help. Other symptoms that warrant medical attention include open sores, pain that follows an injury to the foot, and redness or swelling of the feet and/or joints.
Can foot pain be related to heart problems?
In some cases, foot pain can be related to atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds and collects in the walls of the arteries of the heart, which can cause peripheral artery disease (PAD), a disorder that can cause pain in the legs and feet.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.