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Feet – they’re often ignored, hidden and mistreated, until something goes wrong. Then we realise just how much they do. Let’s give them some attention.

Take a moment to consider your feet. Not their outward appearance (which we’ll get to later), but their incredible design. Twenty-six tiny bones and layers of muscles, and ligaments suspended together in a design as masterful as the Golden Gate bridge, to enable us to walk, run, jump and dance. If you have some sort of fitness monitor, you probably know exactly how many steps your poor feet accomplish each day.

Some of us pull on comfortable running shoes and head for the road or gym without a thought of how our feet get the job done. Consider a dancer’s feet squeezed into tiny ballet shoes supporting their entire body weight on a teeny tiny pointe – Incredible design indeed!

Many of us have something about our feet that we hate. They’re either too fat, flat or misshapen. But often the way they look is a result of the way they’ve been treated.

Hot heels
Those gorgeous stilettos are to die for! But probably the worst thing you can do to your feet. A Cape Town podiatrist says that the most common problems she treats come from wearing the wrong shoes. Studies have shown that wearing these shoes is a bad idea for various reasons, affecting not only our feet (and altering our posture and gait), but also our spine, hips, knees and ankles. Daily high-heel use can actually result in changes to our anatomy over time. Calf muscles can shorten and tendons may thicken. Spondylolisthesis (which is the slipping of one vertebra forward over another, especially in the lumbar region of the spine), is also a possibility.

Sound scary? It is!

So do we ditch the heels? Not at all. But save them for those red-carpet events. For daily wear, it’s a good idea to keep rotating the type of shoe you wear. Try to avoid wearing flat shoes or slip-slops every day, as they offer no support. Investing in at least one or two pairs of shoes with proper arch support is a good idea. Make sure you choose the right shoe for the occasion. Just as you wouldn’t go running in your slippers, wearing heels to work every day is unnecessary. If your job requires you to stand a lot, try to find supportive thick-soled shoes that provide some cushioning.

Flat feet can be a real pain! Mostly hereditary, they can also be caused by injury, pregnancy or excessive weight. Because the arch is lower in flat feet, the foot’s ability to absorb shock is limited, causing foot strain and pain in the joints and muscles in the heels, ankles, knees, hips and lower back. Podiatrists can treat flat feet by creating a moulded support that props up the arch and improves the foot’s bio-mechanical function.

Other common foot problems include:
Bunions
Sometimes genetic, bunions are most commonly caused by squeezing our feet into pointy shoes. The joint capsule and the muscle of the first joint form a bony ‘bump’ that can look unsightly, and over time become painful and make walking a problem. Bunions can only be removed surgically.

Calluses
Calluses are spots of compacted skin caused by bony abnormalities such as dropped arches or flat feet, or from wearing shoes that are too small, too big or too tight, so the skin becomes hardened to protect the tissue underneath. If ignored, they become extremely painful corns, which will need to be removed by a podiatrist.

Ingrown toenails
Ingrown toenails are caused by poor nail-cutting technique, irregularly shaped nails, shoes that are too tight, or injury to the nail. Cut your nails straight across and ensure that the corners are completely free. If you cut down to the quick in the corners, you may leave a nail ‘spike’ behind which grows down into the flesh of the toe, causing it to become swollen, painful and infected. If this happens, you will need to see a doctor or podiatrist. It can be particularly problematic if you’re diabetic and should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Cracked heels
This common condition is caused by dry skin. In extreme cases heels may bleed and become infected. Moisturising is very important. A regular trip to your favourite salon for a pedicure is an excellent way to keep your heels (and feet in general) in good condition. Depending on the type of pedicure, you might get a reflexology massage to relieve tension throughout your body, a warm paraffin wax to moisturise, exfoliation to smooth your skin or a mask to smooth, moisturise and refresh your feet. And bonus – you’ll also end up with pretty toes. 

Athlete’s foot
No one likes to talk about it, but athlete’s foot is out there and we’re all exposed to it, particularly in gym changing rooms. If you want to avoid it, keep a pair of flip-flops on at the gym, in the shower, and never share towels. If you do happen to get it, you’ll need to see your doctor to get a prescription for an anti-fungal preparation, as over-the-counter treatments don’t really work.

Possible health problems
Swelling of feet and ankles can occur if we stand for too long or wear the wrong shoes, but could also be because of water retention. If you regularly have swollen feet, you should see your doctor, as this could be an indication of a heart condition.

Similarly, if your feet feel numb, see your doctor immediately. Diabetes can affect nerves and cause loss of circulation in small blood vessels. Because our feet are extremities, they often show the first symptoms, such as the loss of the ability to feel light touch, heat, cold and pain. Diabetes lowers resistance to infection, so small cuts and bruises can become nasty, slow-healing ulcers. Many such lesions are ignored because a diabetic simply does not feel the pain, but it left, they can result in hospitalisation, surgery, amputation and even death.

Diabetics should:
·      Wear low-heeled, roomy shoes that fasten with laces or straps.
·      Wash feet daily with warm water and mild soap.
·      Rub dry skin with moisturising cream, avoiding the area between the toes.
·      Cut nails straight across or let a podiatrist cut them for you.
·      Check your feet daily, looking for colour changes, sores, swelling, pain or throbbing.
·      Have regular check-ups at your diabetic clinic or podiatrist.
·      Seek attention immediately if you injure your foot, even if it doesn’t hurt.

But never:
·     Warm feet in front of the fire, or with hot-water bottles and electric blankets.
·     Remove calluses or corns or use corn medication. This is a job for a qualified podiatrist.
·     Go barefoot.

It’s not all bad news for feet though. Unless you’re incurably ticklish, you’ll probably enjoy (and benefit from) some reflexology. Applying gentle pressure and using precise thumb, finger and hand techniques, a reflexologist can stimulate different areas of the foot to reduce stress, improve circulation and balance and normalise various systems in the body.

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