What Does a Podiatrist Do?
Podiatrists are medical specialists who help with problems that affect your feet or lower legs. They can treat injuries as well as complications from ongoing health issues like diabetes. You might hear them called a podiatric physician or doctor of podiatric medicine.
Are They Doctors?
Podiatrists are doctors, but they don't go to traditional medical school. They have their own schools and professional associations. They also have "DPM" (doctor of podiatric medicine) after their names instead of "MD" (medical doctor).
Podiatrists can do surgery, reset broken bones, prescribe drugs, and order lab tests or X-rays. They often work closely with other specialists when a problem affects your feet or lower legs. In the U.S., podiatrists are licensed and regulated by state governments.
Education and Training
In college, students who want to be podiatrists take biology, chemistry, and physics along with other science classes to get ready for podiatry school. Most get a bachelor's degree in biology or a similar field of science.
Then they go to podiatry school for 4 years. They study how bones, nerves, and muscles work together to help you move. They also study the illnesses and injuries that can affect your feet. That includes how to diagnose them and treat them and how to fix the feet with surgery if needed.
There are nine podiatry schools in the U.S. accredited by the American Podiatric Medical Association.
Once students graduate from podiatry school, they work in a hospital for 3 years. This is called a residency, and they put what they've learned to use. They also work with doctors in other fields, including surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, and specialists in infectious diseases.
After the residency, they can get advanced certifications in surgery on feet and ankles.
Conditions Podiatrists Treat
Podiatrists treat people of any age for many foot-related conditions, including:
- Fractures and sprains. Podiatrists regularly treat these common injuries when they affect a foot or ankle. They also work in sports medicine, treating foot problems athletes have and recommending ways to avoid them.
- Bunions and hammertoes. These are problems with the bones in your feet. A bunion happens when the joint at the base of your big toe gets bigger or knocked out of place. That makes the toe bend toward the others. A hammertoe is one that doesn't bend the right way.
Nail disorders. These include issues like an infection in your nail caused by a fungus or an ingrown toenail. That's when a corner or side of a nail grows into your toe instead of straight out.
- Diabetes. This is a condition in which your body either doesn't make a hormone called insulin or doesn't use it the way it should. Insulin helps you digest sugar. Diabetes can damage the nerves in your feet or legs, and you might have trouble getting enough blood to your feet.
Diabetes can cause serious complications. More than 65,000 people a year need to have a foot amputated -- removed by a doctor -- because of diabetes. A podiatrist can help prevent that. If you have diabetes, make sure to get any sore or callus on your feet checked out.
- Arthritis. This results from inflammation, swelling, and wear and tear on your joints. Each foot has 33 joints. A podiatrist might recommend physical therapy, drugs, or special shoes or inserts to help with your arthritis. Surgery also might be an option if other treatments don't work well for you.
- Growing pains. If your child's feet point inward or look flat or their toes don't line up right, a podiatrist might be able to help. They could recommend exercises, insoles, or braces. Or they might recommend surgery.
- Heel pain. A common cause of heel pain is heel spurs, a buildup of calcium at the bottom of your heel bone. You can get them from running, ill-fitting shoes, or being overweight. Plantar fasciitis is inflammation of the band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot. Sports and nonsupportive shoes are usually to blame. Overpronation, meaning your foot bends in or out too far when you walk, is often a cause. It, too, can affect athletes, as can Achilles tendinitis, which causes pain at the back of your heel where this tendon attaches. Treatment often starts with over-the-counter pain meds and may include shoe inserts called orthotics. Some people need surgery.
- Morton’s neuroma. Nerve problems between the third and fourth bones of your foot can cause pain, burning, and a feeling that there’s something in your shoe. It usually affects runners. Tight shoes and overpronation make it worse. A podiatrist can give you shots for inflammation and pain and help you find an orthotic. You might need surgery to remove it.
Reasons to See a Podiatrist
Your feet do a lot of work. By the time you’re 50, you’ll have walked 75,000 miles on them. Feet are complex structures with many bones, tendons, and ligaments that have to work together perfectly to keep you moving.
Call the podiatrist when you have:
- Foot pain
- Thick or discolored toenails
- Cracks or cuts in your skin
- Growths like warts
- Scaling on peeling on your soles
What to Expect at the Podiatrist
Your first visit to a podiatrist will be a lot like any other doctor. They’ll ask questions about your medical history, medications you’re on, or any surgeries you’ve had.
They’ll look at how you stand and walk, check the range of motion in your joints, and see how your shoes fit. The first visit is often the time to treat bunions, ingrown toenails, heel and lower back pain, circulation in your feet if you have diabetes, and foot deformities.
The podiatrist might suggest orthotics, padding, or physical therapy to treat your problems. They can treat some conditions in the office. They might use tools like syringes to give you pain medication and nail splitters or a nail anvil to remove ingrown toenails. Scalpels can cut into the skin around a toenail or remove parts of corns and calluses. Many doctors use cryotherapy equipment -- liquid nitrogen -- to freeze off plantar warts.