You might not think it — but your feet can tell you a surprising amount about your health.
From pesky cracked heels and calluses to more serious problems, such as swelling, they often show signs of disease before any other part of your body.
So what does having cold feet really mean?
And can swelling really indicate you may have heart problems?
Emma McConnachie, a podiatrist in Falkirk, and spokesperson for the Royal College of Podiatry, revealed to MailOnline what your feet really say about your health.
From pesky cracked heels to more serious symptoms, such as swelling, your feet often show symptoms of disease before any other part of your body
Emma McConnachie, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Podiatry and a private practice podiatrist, spoke to MailOnline
Retracted toes or claw toes
Could be a sign of: Ill-fitting footwear or neurological changes
Your smaller toes ‘can start to rise up over time as the tendons on the top of the foot get tighter’, Ms McConnachie told MailOnline.
The most common cause of this is footwear that either fits poorly at the toes or slip-on shoes that lead you to grip the shoe with your toes.
But retracted toes can also be the result of nerve damage, caused by conditions such as a stroke.
Strokes can cause an imbalance of muscles in the feet and toes, triggering strong muscles in the foot to over-contract and causing the weaker muscles in the toe to bend abnormally.
‘Someone who has had a stroke may be left with a different foot shape to before. Speak to your podiatrist to determine the cause of your toe changes and to see what can be done to help them,’ Ms McConnachie said.
Studies have also shown conditions including poorly controlled diabetes can also lead to peripheral nerve damage in the foot.
Dark vertical bands on the toenail or dark spots under the nail
Could be a sign of: Pigment deposits, trauma or skin cancer
Discolouration on toenails is not unusual.
The most common cause of dark spots on the nail is trauma, Ms McConnachie advised.
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This can cause a bruise to develop and blood to pool under the nail, which could range from ‘a few flecks to the full nail’, she said.
Often, this grows out over a period of several months as the nail grows from the cuticle to the end of your toe.
But if a dark brown or black discoloured straight vertical stripe appears on the nail, this could indicate melanonychia — which can be caused by injury or illness.
‘The darker your skin tone, the higher chance you have of developing dark stripes in your nails. These will usually be seen in the 5th and 1st nails but can appear in all,’ she said.
Dark stripes could also be a sign of melanoma — a type of skin cancer that develops from skin cells called melanocytes — Ms McConnachie warned.
This is a particular concern when seen in those with paler skin, she added.
But dark marks are normally a sign of trauma, she advised. ‘If you have any concerns, get them checked out.’
Thick yellow toenails
Could be a sign of: A fungal infection
Toenails naturally thicken up over time, especially as they hit off your shoes several thousand times a day.
‘Those wearing steel toe caps or who are very active, will often have thicker toenails,’ Ms McConnachie noted.
But in some cases, toenails can become very thick, yellow, orange or brown or even crumbly, indicating signs of athlete’s foot, known medically as tinea pedis.
One of the most common foot conditions, studies suggest the fungal infection affects around 15 per cent of people each year globally.
Fungus thrives in warm, damp, moist areas — meaning feet provide the perfect environment, as they have around 250,000 sweat glands, providing an ideal breeding ground.
One of the most common foot problems – for both men and women – is the growth of calluses also known as hard or dead skin
Fungal infections are highly contagious and can spread to anywhere on your skin, including your scalp, hands and even your groin. This is especially likely if you use the same towel for your feet as for the rest of your body.
‘Your podiatrist can advise you if you have a fungal nail condition and which of the treatment options are suitable for you,’ Ms McConnachie said.
Could be a sign of: Heart problems or lymphatic drainage issues
While our feet naturally swell slightly by the end of each day or on particularly warm days, any sudden changes in the size of one or both feet should be checked by a professional, Ms McConnachie advised.
‘It may be that the swelling is ok for your body, or it could be a sign that your lymphatic system isn’t functioning at optimum levels,’ she added.
The lymphatic system — which protects against infection and disease — is a network of lymph nodes which are connected by thin tubes.
The around 800 lymph nodes in the body remove abnormal material and swell when fighting an infection.
According to the NHS, lymphoedema — a long-term condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissues — can develop when the lymphatic system does not work properly.
But swelling in the feet may also be a sign that there is an issue with your heart, Ms McConnachie added.
If the heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should, such as due to heart failure, it an cause a build up of fluid in the feet and ankles
‘There are many different reasons that feet and ankles can swell, many of which are easily managed,’ she added.
Calluses on the toes or heels or balls of the feet
Could be a sign of: Ill-fitting shoes
One of the most common foot problems — for both men and women — is the growth of calluses also known as hard or dead skin.
Often affecting the toes and dry cracked heels, this could be caused by shoes that are either too tight or the wrong shape for your toes, Ms McConnachie advised.
Common offenders include mule style shoes that slip at the heel.
‘Callus is perfectly normal to have on the feet. Our body detects areas of high pressure and will build up dead skin to protect the areas,’ she said.
But Ms McConnachie warned not to attempt removing it yourself using any sharp implements.
‘When it builds up in high amounts, or over certain areas, it can become painful,’ she added.
‘A podiatrist can safely and painlessly remove it and advise you on why yours is occurring.’
Can be a sign of: Poor circulation
While cold feet may be your body’s normal response to temperature, it can occasionally indicate an underlying problem.
‘Cold feet are usually a result of poor circulation in the body, meaning warm blood may not be getting to your feet on a regular basis,’ Ms McConnachie advised.
As the furthest point in the body from the heart, poor blood flow means it takes longer for the blood to reach your feet.
While cold feet may be your body’s normal response to temperature, it can occasionally indicate something further. ‘Cold feet are usually a result of poor circulation in the body, meaning warm blood may not be getting to your feet on a regular basis,’ Ms McConnachie advised
‘There has been a dramatic rise in reports of chilblains (small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures) being seen by podiatrists across the UK in recent months’ she added.
‘This is being linked to homes being heated less amid the rising cost of living.
‘If you are keeping your room temperature lower, be sure to insulate your legs and feet,’ Ms McConnachie said.
‘Multiple layers can help keep you legs warm and bed socks and warm slippers can help keep your feet warm when at home.’
Could be a sign of: Underactive thyroid
Underactive thyroids — when the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones — can cause the skin in the feet to become dry and cracked, Ms McConnachie said.
Studies have also shown that most people with the condition — medically known as hypothyroidism — report coarse, rough, dry skin, particularly on their feet.
This is because the gland can cause the skin to become thick and dry.
However, cracked heels are ‘far more likely to be caused by dehydration of the skin in the area,’ Ms McConnachie advised.
‘Start applying a cracked heel cream twice a day for a couple of weeks and you should notice a big difference,’ she recommended.
‘Avoiding backless shoes and not walking barefoot should also help.’
Slow healing wound or cut on your foot
Could be a sign of: Diabetes
Feeling more tired, thirsty and hungry are all common diabetes symptoms.
But a lesser known one is foot injuries taking a long time to get better.
This is because having consistently high blood sugar can lead to problems with circulation, nerves and the immune system – all of which can get in the way of good wound healing.
Diabetic neuropathy – a condition causing damage to your nerves affecting around half of all people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes – can also impact wounds and healing.
Ms McConnachie said: ‘Wounds in the feet will often take longer to heal than in other body parts, even in the healthiest of people.
‘However, if you notice that a wound is taking a while to heal, visit your podiatrist to get it checked out.
‘Type 2 diabetes is one of the more common underlying conditions that can cause this but there are many more so there will be lots of factors that will be considered as the cause of your slow healing.’
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