Eeeek! Hot sand, tarry asphalt, pool slop crawling with microbes, teetery high-heeled sandals, 10-mile hikes -- feet sure take a beating in summer.
Nearly half of all Americans suffer from a foot problem at some point in their lives, says the American Podiatric Medical Association. And summer, when people are more apt to be active and away from home (and doctors), can be especially problematic.
But there are ways to be nice to those tootsies.
1. Don't Go Barefoot
"This is the best advice I have," says James W. Brodsky, MD, an orthopaedist in private practice, and clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. "We see so many injuries from going barefoot. Even in that cool grass that feels so good can be a dangerous, cutting object."
A second reason not to bare those dogs is that you could have neuropathy from an unknown cause (even if you are not diabetic). You may not even know you have it. You could dash across the street barefoot, and even if it's hot enough to fry an egg out there, you wouldn't feel it. But you would get burned. "A lot of people don't know they have it (neuropathy) until they get an injury," Brodsky says.
Diabetics should never walk barefoot -- even indoors, says Brodsky, who is president of the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society. Think of all the sharp toys and home improvement materials left on the floor, especially in summer.
2. Avoid (or Treat) Heel Pain
Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the plantar fascia, the band of connective tissue that supports the arch of your foot and extends to the heel. It is a common cause of heel pain. Every other step...ouch!
Marlene Reid, DPM, a podiatrist in private practice in Westmont, Ill., and past president of the American Association for Women Podiatrists, tells WebMD plantar fasciitis can best be prevented by walking in sturdy shoes, with good stability and arch support, rather than flimsy sandals or flip-flops.
Once it starts panging, the disorder -- which usually hurts worst right after taking the first steps in the morning -- can go on for months, gradually getting worse rather than better.
If the pain lasts more than two months, Reid recommends seeing a doctor. "You could stretch gently in the morning before walking," she says. "There also are different types of heel cups you can buy.
"The doctor might also recommend physical therapy or night splints," Reid says. "Cortisone can be injected, and there are shockwave and cryogenic treatments available to destroy the inflamed tissue and promote normal healing."
3. Wear Sensible Shoes
Sandals that make you grip with your toes to keep them on may cause tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendons in the toes, Reid says. So get a shoe that attaches firmly.
High heels, Reid says, don't just put temporary pressure on the ball of the foot -- they change the makeup of your foot. "A 3-inch heel causes pressure seven times your body weight," she explains. "This changes the pattern of (cushioning) fat on the bottom of your foot. This can happen to women in their 20s."
Fortunately, the sandals and platforms worn in summer tend to have a lower toe to heel height ratio. "A platform raises the heel as well as the toe," Reid explains.
"Summer is a wonderful time for businesswomen," says Brodsky. "They can wear open-toed shoes and give those piggies a breather. We see fewer complaints of painful hammertoes and bunions with women wearing dressy sling backs and sandals."
In the August issue of Shop Etc. magazine, beauty mavens exult over comfy new dress shoe styles that underpin heels; platforms; and other sexy styling with thick padding and shock absorbers. This takes that seven-times-your-body weight pressure and distributes it, making the shoe, not your tissues, take the weight.
One piece of advice when shopping for shoes is to press your finger inside the shoe -- ball of the foot and arch. See if it springs back. Check out the materials too. The comfiest shoes, especially in summer, are not plastic or man-made materials, but leather. And thicker heels distribute weight better.
But look out for those pointy toes. There are lots of cute ballerina flats with round toes out there.
"In summer," Brodsky offers, "shoes tend to be less dressy."
4. Protect Feet From Contaminated Water
At the pool, in the gym, in the locker room, wear clogs or flip-flops -- preferably your own, Brodsky advises.
"We notice more athlete's foot (fungus) in kids in summer," Reid says. "It's not a new risk. Keep feet dry. Rinse them during the day, change socks twice a day. And don't wear the same sweaty old shoes every day."
Reid also recommends using an antiperspirant on feet. "It robs fungus of the moisture it likes," she says (and helps with foot and shoe odor).
Another source of contaminated water is nail salons. Some California pedicure salons were found to have drains full of organisms.
If you go get a pedicurist, Reid recommends getting one of the first appointments in the morning.
Always be sure you are getting sterilized instruments -- even a file used on your own hands should not be used on your feet.
Never shave your legs before a pedicure, either, Reid says. "If there is bacteria around, you don't want it in small cuts on your legs."
5. Baby Those Peds on a Hike
Out in the wild, the expression, "Feet don't fail me now," takes on new meaning. Some tips for happy trails:
- Don't wear new boots or footwear on a hike or anywhere far from help. Break them in beforehand by wearing a few hours at a time.
- Make sure your footwear is comfortable and cushioned. Stick your fingers inside and check.
- If you use an orthotic device, make sure it's soft and cushioned, not rigid plastic.
- Wear socks no matter how hot it is.
- If you get a blister, don't pop it. "It's God's Band-Aid," Brodsky says, "providing protective cushioning."
- If it does pop, do not tear off the "roof." Use antibiot ic cream and a clean bandage. (This procedure is best avoided in the wild, but then, that is where most blisters pop up.)
- Vaseline, Reid says, is the best protection against blisters.
Special Note for People With Diabetes
According to the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society, 60% to 70% of those with diabetes may have neuropathy . For them, minor injuries can become major quickly.
Here are some tips for those with the disease:
Inspect your feet every day. Many people with diabetes may also have circulation problems. That means tiny injuries can be slower to heal. Look for warmth, pain, blisters, and redness. Examine between your toes. You might find athlete's foot or cracks in the skin that could be a point of entry for infection. If you can't see, get a mirror or ask for help.
Wash your feet every day with warm water and soap. Don't soak. Pat dry with a towel and don't forget between the toes.
Use a good lotion to keep the skin moist (do not put it between your toes).
Never walk barefoot. You might also want to toss those sandals and flip-flops.
Buy shoes late in the day when your feet are largest.
Don't wear the same shoes every day.
Wear thin cotton socks with square toes.
For feet -- as well as other parts of the body -- comes good all-around advice from Brodsky: "Most workers are sedentary. You may exercise, but you don't exercise six hours straight as you would on a hike or a trip to an amusement park." On vacation, we tend to do unusual things or usual things for a long time.
So, "Take it easy. Use common sense," she advises.
Can't you just hear your feet thanking you down there?