Foot pain is a common problem which can have many causes, including a sports injury, the natural shape of your foot or sometimes disease.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

Summary

In many cases, foot pain goes away by itself without needing treatment. However, if your pain continues or affects your everyday life, it may be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

Causes of foot pain

The cause of your pain can often be identified by the location of the pain and other symptoms you might have.

If you have severe pain anywhere in your foot after a fall or accident, you could have a fracture. It will usually feel hot and swollen, and you might be unable to walk. You should go to your nearest minor injury unit or A&E if you suspect a broken toe, ankle or foot.

Ankle pain

Exercising too much or wearing shoes that are too tight are both common causes of ankle pain. Other causes include: 

  • Achilles tendonitis — pain occurs in your ankle as well as your heel and calf, especially when you stand on your tiptoes or stretch your ankle 
  • Broken ankle — during the injury you may hear a snapping or popping sound accompanied by sudden, sharp pain and later swelling; you may also notice your ankle is at an odd angle and will find it difficult to walk
  • Bursitis — achy, dull pain accompanied by redness and swelling
  • Sprained ankle — this often occurs after intense or repetitive exercise and causes bruising, pain and swelling

Foot joint pain

Arthritis is a common cause of joint pain and stiffness, and sometimes crepitus (a cracking or crunching sound or sensation when you move a joint). Forms of arthritis that commonly cause painful feet or ankle pain are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

Heel pain

Pain in your heel could be plantar fasciitis, a condition that around one in 10 people will get at some point in their lifetime. It makes it difficult to walk and is caused by the inflammation of a strong band of tissue that stretches from your heel to your toes.

If you have heel pain but you can lift your toes without pain, then you may have bursitis — inflammation of a bursa, which is a soft cushion inside your joints.

Sudden pain and difficulty walking may be an Achilles tendon rupture due to force or injury. Alternatively, Achilles tendinopathy is pain and stiffness that appears gradually. It's a type of tendonitis (inflammation in a tendon).

Other causes of heel pain include: 

  • A stone bruise — a deep bruise on the fat pad of your heel or the ball of your foot, which is often caused by an impact injury (eg stepping forcefully onto a small hard object); the pain is often described as the sensation of walking on pebbles and will go away on its own
  • Heel fracture — high impact injuries (eg a car accident or fall) can cause your heel to fracture or shatter 
  • Heel spurs — abnormal growths of bone on the bottom of your heel that cause pain when standing or walking and can be caused by having an abnormal walk or posture that puts more pressure on your heels, running, and/or wearing poorly fitted shoes; you are more likely to have heel spurs if you have flat feet or high arches 

Toe pain

Exercising too much or wearing shoes that are too tight or poorly fitted are common causes of toe pain. 

Wearing poorly fitted shoes can cause toe pain due to corns and calluses on your toes or hammertoe, where your second, third or fourth toes become bent upwards at the middle joint causing a hammer-like appearance. Hammertoe can also be caused by a muscle imbalance.

Injuries can also cause toe pain due to: 

  • Sesamoid fracture — breaks in the small bones (sesamoids) embedded in the tendons that are attached to the base of your big toe
  • Toe sprain — tendons or soft tissues of your toe become damaged eg when you stub your toe
  • Toe fracture — any of the 14 bones in your toes can fracture, and while minor fractures may only need treatment with ice, painkillers and rest, more serious fractures may need surgery
  • Turf toe — a strain of your big toe joint with pain at the bottom of your big toe; it can lead to a sesamoid fracture or sesamoiditis (inflammation of the tendons that are attached to the base of your big toe)

Other causes of toe pain include:

  • An ingrown toenail
  • Bunions — a hard, bony lump in your big toe causing gradual pain and discomfort
  • Claw toe — when your toe points up or down and you can't straighten it due to muscle weakness, which is often caused by nerve damage from alcoholism or diabetes
  • Gout — typically causing sudden, severe pain and swelling in the big toe that's hot and tender
  • Hallux rigidus — a type of arthritis that causes stiffness in your big toe
  • Raynaud's disease or chilblains — both conditions involve poor circulation and in chilblains, cause your toes to change colour and become numb, painful and/or tingly when exposed to cold, while in Raynaud's disease these symptoms can also occur when you are stressed 

Pain in the ball of your foot

Pain in the ball of your foot is often caused by exercising too much or wearing shoes that are too tight or poorly fitted. The shape of your foot can also cause pain in the ball of your foot by putting extra pressure on it eg if you have hammertoes (toes that are bent upwards at the middle joints) or high arches. Other causes of pain in the ball of your foot include: 

  • A sprain — intense or repetitive exercise can sprain a ligament in your foot causing bruising, pain and swelling 
  • Arthritis or bursitis — aching, dull pain accompanied by redness and swelling
  • Bunions — a hard, bony lump in your big toe causing gradual pain and discomfort
  • Morton's neuroma — damage or irritation to a nerve in your foot causing burning, sharp or shooting pain in the ball of your foot; it may also feel as if you have a lump or small stone under your foot
  • Sesamoiditis — inflammation of the tendons that are attached to the base of your big toe 

Pain on the bottom of your foot

Common causes of pain in the bottom of your foot include exercising too much or wearing shoes that are too tight or poorly fitted. Other causes include: 

  • A sprain — intense or repetitive exercise can sprain a ligament in your foot causing bruising, pain and swelling
  • Flat feet (fallen arches) — no arch under your foot when you stand causing your foot to press flat against the floor
  • Morton's neuroma
  • Plantar fasciitis — sharp pain between your arch and heel caused by the inflammation of a strong band of tissue that stretches from your heel to your toes; symptoms include: 
    • difficulty lifting your toes off the floor
    • pain that eases when you rest
    • pain that gets worse when you walk

Pain on the top of your foot

Pain on the top of your foot is often caused by exercising too much or wearing shoes that are too tight or poorly fitted. Other causes include:

  • A sprain — intense or repetitive exercise can sprain a ligament in your foot causing bruising, pain and swelling
  • Gout
  • Stress fractures — intense or repetitive exercise, such as jumping up and down or long-distance running, can cause tiny cracks (fractures) in the bones of your foot; symptoms include pain and swelling 
  • Tendonitis or osteoarthritis — both of these conditions cause long-lasting pain, stiffness, swelling and a crackling or grating sensation when you move your foot; tendonitis can also cause a lump to form along your tendon 

Other causes of foot pain

Corns or calluses are a common cause of foot pain; these hard patches of skin can cause discomfort when you walk. Other causes include: 

  • A verruca — a small lump with black spots on the sole of your foot that can be painful when you put weight on it
  • Athlete's foot — a fungal infection on your feet
  • Chilblains — itchy swellings that appear red or dark blue caused by exposure to the cold
  • Neuropathy — nerve damage in your foot, which is often caused by diabetes, causing burning or stinging pain; the pain has also been described as feeling like electricity
  • Problems with blood vessels in your feet, such as peripheral arterial disease (a build-up of fatty deposits in arteries of the leg, restricting blood supply) or diabetes
  • Tendonitis — inflammation in a tendon often also causing swelling, stiffness or weakness

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

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Getting a diagnosis for foot pain

You should visit your GP if:

  • Your foot pain has lasted for over a week
  • The pain is severe or suddenly gets worse
  • The pain is in both feet
  • The pain is following an injury

Your GP may be able to diagnose your foot problem just by examining your foot and talking about how you’re feeling. However, occasionally they might need to use imaging tests such as an X-ray or ultrasound scan to make a diagnosis.

Your GP may refer you to a consultant specialising in feet (a podiatrist or chiropodist) who can help diagnose you and recommend treatments, such as creams or insoles.

Treatments for foot pain

Most foot pain can be managed at home. Depending on what type of pain you have, you could try:

  • Applying an ice pack for up to 20 minutes every few hours
  • Carrying out regular, gentle stretching exercises
  • Raising your foot whenever possible
  • Resting your foot as much as possible and avoiding standing or walking for long periods of time
  • Taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen — if your foot pain is caused by an injury, do not take ibuprofen for the first 48 hours after injury
  • Wearing comfortable, wide shoes with a low heel and soft sole, using heel pads and arch supports, and avoiding wearing high heels or tight, pointy shoes

If you are overweight, losing weight can help ease your foot pain. 

If you have ankle pain, you can try wrapping a bandage around your ankle to support it. 

If you have a broken toe, you can buddy strap it — place a piece of cotton wool or gauze between your broken toe and the toe next to it, and then loosely strap these two toes together using tape. Do not buddy strap with your big toe or if your toe is badly broken.

If these treatments don’t improve your symptoms, your doctor may recommend:

  • Joint injections to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief
  • Medication to treat an underlying cause
  • Physiotherapy
  • Surgery, if other treatments aren't working

Frequently asked questions

What can cause foot pain without injury?

Foot pain is often caused by injury, both sudden and due to repetitive movements. However, it can also be caused by underlying medical conditions including:  

  • Arthritis — forms of arthritis that commonly cause painful feet or ankle pain are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout
  • Chilblains — itchy swellings that appear red or dark blue caused by exposure to the cold
  • Crepitus — a cracking or crunching sound or sensation when you move a joint, which is usually not painful but can be if it is caused by the snapping of tendons or ligaments over the bony surfaces of your joint
  • Infection — this includes infection with:  
    • Human papillomavirus (HPV) — this can cause a verruca, a small lump with black spots on the sole of your foot that causes pain when you put your weight on it
    • Tinea fungus — this can cause athlete's foot
  • Morton's neuroma — damage or irritation to a nerve in your foot causing burning, sharp or shooting pain in the ball of your foot; it may also feel as if you have a lump or small stone under your foot
  • Neuropathy — nerve damage in your foot, which is often caused by diabetes, causing burning or stinging pain; the pain has also been described as feeling like electricity

Problems with blood vessels in your feet can also cause foot pain, such as peripheral arterial disease or diabetes. The natural shape of your foot is another cause of foot pain eg having high arches, which can increase your risk of developing heel spurs, or flat fleet. 

What causes pain on side of foot?

Pain on the outside of your foot may be due to a fracture, stress fracture (tiny cracks in your bone usually caused by intense or repetitive exercise) or a sprain. However, other causes include: 

  • Flat feet (fallen arches) — no arch under your foot when you stand causing your foot to press flat against the floor
  • Plantar fasciitis — sharp pain between your arch and heel caused by the inflammation of a strong band of tissue which stretches from your heel to your toes

What are the signs of arthritis in your feet?

Arthritis can affect any joint in your body, including those in your toes. Symptoms include: 

  • Crepitus — a cracking or crunching sound or sensation when you move your toes
  • Changes in appearance — osteoarthritis causes the cartilage between your toes joints to wear away, making your bones rub against each other, which can cause bony growths that make your toes appear bigger or curve abnormally
  • Difficulty walking 
  • Heat, redness and swelling — due to inflammation 
  • Pain — this ranges from mild to severe depending on the level of inflammation
  • Stiffness or locked joints — severe stiffness and swelling can prevent a joint in your toe from bending (locked joint)

How can I stop the pain in my feet?

In most cases, there are simple things you can do yourself to stop the pain in your feet. Rest and elevate your foot whenever possible and regularly perform gentle stretching exercises. You can also try applying an ice pack for up to 20 minutes every few hours and taking over-the-counter painkillers. Avoid wearing high heels or tight, pointy shoes; instead, wear wide shoes with low heels and soft soles.

If you are overweight, losing weight can also help. 

If these treatments don’t improve your symptoms, see your GP. They may recommend:

  • Joint injections to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief
  • Medication to treat an underlying cause
  • Physiotherapy
  • Surgery, if other treatments aren't working

Can foot pain be related to heart problems?

Foot pain can be related to heart problems. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) causes a build-up of fatty deposits in arteries of the leg, restricting blood supply to your lower legs and feet. This can result in foot pain and wounds on your feet not healing properly. PAD can also damage your heart and increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

Also, swelling of your foot, which can be painful, can be a sign of heart failure. 

If you are concerned about your foot pain, see your GP.

Is pain in your feet a sign of diabetes?

Pain in your feet may be a sign of diabetes, as this disease can cause nerve damage. This can lead to:

Claw toe — when your toe points up or down and you can't straighten it due to muscle weakness, which is often caused by nerve damage
Neuropathy — nerve damage in your foot causing numbness, tingling and/or burning, sharp or stinging pain
Diabetes can also affect the blood vessels in your feet, reducing the delivery of blood and oxygen, which can cause pain.

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