What your feet say about your health

Friday January 31 2014

Most of us think little about the state of our feet. They only come to mind when we want to accesorise them and make them look attractive.

Most of us think little about the state of our feet. They only come to mind when we want to accesorise them and make them look attractive. Photo/FILE 

Most of us think little about the state of our feet. They only come to mind when we want to accesorise them and make them look attractive.

However, the feet can tell a lot about one’s general wellbeing. They usually carry subtle signs which can be an indicator of underlying health issues.

In the majority of case, poor hygiene is the major culprit. However, there are people who wash their feet daily and still get foul odour from their feet by the end of the day.

Usually, the issue is related to moisture and bacteria.

Feet may become moist in people who sweat excessively, wear socks that do not absorb sweat or in people who fail to dry their feet properly before putting on socks.

The key to eliminating foot odour is to keep feet dry at all times. Wear cotton socks and never wear the same shoe or socks two days in a row.

If you notice that the odour only occurs when you wear a particular shoe, throw it away.

Take off your shoes and socks and walk around the house bare feet. Always wipe between toes after washing your feet. If the odour problem is excessive, visit your doctor.


This is a common problem which can occur after prolonged standing, long haul flights and in pregnancy.

For most pregnant women it does indicate a medical problem but all expectant mothers with swollen feet must be assessed for high blood pressure which may complicate the pregnancy.

Swollen feet may be a sign of poor circulation, kidney, heart, thyroid or liver problems. Hormonal contraceptive use may also be associated with swollen feet.


Persistent or recurrent burning sensation in the feet is a sign of nerve damage. Nerve problems may also be manifested as persistent ‘pins and needles’ (sensation of being repeatedly pricked). This is particularly common in diabetics.

It can also be caused by vitamin B deficiency, thyroid problems, kidney disease and poor blood circulation in the legs and feet.


Feet can sometimes feel cold even if the surrounding environment is warm. Common culprits causing this are poor blood circulation, uncontrolled diabetes (due to nerve damage), and thyroid problems.


The most common cause of foot pain is inappropriate foot wear. For women, spending prolonged periods in high heels (especially on a daily basis) is the most common culprit.

It is, therefore, essential to alternate the type of shoe you wear and avoid using high heels daily (especially if you have to walk a lot).

People who exercise intensely for long hours (doing exercises that put high impact on the foot like running, and marching among soldiers) may get a crack in the bones of their feet. This crack or ‘stress fracture’ may go unnoticed for weeks.

People with weaker bones (due to osteoporosis which can occur in both men and women over 50 years) are particularly prone to fractures.


When the pain is localised to the heel, the most likely problem is ‘plantar fascitis’. This is a medical condition where the soft tissues attached to the heel become inflammed, painful and swollen.

The pain is usually worst when you put pressure on the foot after resting it for a prolonged period.

Sometimes the bone at the heel may get a sharp protrusion known as a ‘spur’ which can result in severe pain as well. Other causes of heel pain are bone infections, arthritis and poor footwear.


In our set up, the most notorious cause of a painful big toe is gout. Other forms of arthritis and their complications can cause painful toes, Athletes can also get soft tissue injury which can lead to persistent pain.


Dragging of feet in most cases is a sign of nerve damage. It can occur in Parkinson’s disease, diabetics with nerve damage, alcoholics and after injury to the back. Dragging of the foot on one side is usually a sign of a stroke.


This is particularly common in diabetes (especially if it has been poorly controlled). These wounds are also particularly dangerous as they can get infected and cause the foot to ‘rot’.

The problem with diabetics is that they usually get nerve damage which impairs sensation. They also have poor circulation in their feet which impairs the healing of the wound.

For this reason, small wounds can slowly become deep if not quickly attended to.


The most common cause of itchy feet (especially between the toes) is athlete’s foot.

This is a type of fungal infection which is more common in people who are not able to keep the area between their toes dry.

Another cause of itchy feet is irritation from skin products or even fabric or jewellery.


Sometimes one may experience a foot cramp or muscle spasm as a result of over-exertion and fatigue of the muscles of the foot. These cramps usually disappear with rest.

However, recurrent foot cramps may be an indication of underlying problems such as poor circulation, dehydration, or salt and vitamin imbalances.


Most Kenyans have stereotyped skin cancer as a disease of ‘Caucasians who expose themselves to excessive sunshine’. This is, however, not true.

Skin cancer ,in particular, melanoma, the most dangerous one can affect places which are not usually exposed to the sun such as the soles of our feet.

It usually starts off as a dark spot which progressively enlarges. It can also appear as a black spot beneath the nails.


A fungal infection often causes thickened yellow toenails. Iron deficiency can also cause your toenails to look like spoons. White nails may be a feature of alcoholic complications such as liver disease.

Nails also appear white if they are injured or infected. Using nail polish without a suitable undercoat can discolour your nails and give them an unsightly brownish colour.

If you are concerned about some of the issues raised here, talk to your doctor about it. He/she will assess your feet and decide if there is something that needs further investigation or treatment.

This article first appeared in the Business Daily