Why you should see a Podiatrist
Our feet may be the furthest thing from our head but their health shouldn’t be the furthest thing from our mind. Pay attention to them now to prevent pain later. By Katie Hendry
We can pretty them up with nail polish and fabulous shoes, but our oft-ignored feet only really get our attention when something goes wrong – and then our whole body can suffer the debilitating consequences.
The key to walking well for decades to come is to ensure these biomechanical feats of engineering are functioning as they should, which is where a podiatrist comes in. These specialists assess foot health, advise on shoe choices, treat everything from cracked heels to knee pain, and help to correct invisible issues before they cause future pain elsewhere in the body. Here are the top reasons to put your feet first and visit an expert.
Flat feet or overpronation (fallen arches) may place abnormal force on the body and can result in functional pain in the feet, heels, knees, hips, back and neck. “A kid at 14 may be told they’ll grow out of flat feet but they often end up with bunions, plantar fasciitis or knee issues,” podiatrist Leigh Birchley of the Australian Podiatry Association says.
When there are foot structure issues, the earlier you can influence its boney architecture the better, Birchley adds. However, orthotics at any age can help to correct the foot to a neutral position and ease associated pain through the body. While you can buy basic orthotics at a pharmacy, a podiatrist can design 3-D laser-scanned orthotics to work with your body, with options ranging from intensive sports support to a neat “hook” style that fits into a pair of heels.
People with poor foot development such as flat feet are prone to bunions due to the abnormal pressure placed on the big toe area, causing the bone to move, the toe to swing in and a bump to form. Bunions are the main reason people see a podiatrist, Birchley says, and often only after it causes pain. Orthotics may slow and possibly halt its progression, she adds, but if pain and function are limiting movement, podiatric surgery may be advised (return to full foot function can be as little as six weeks).
Podiatrists do minor surgery for in-grown toenails and remove warts with cryogenic freezing, dry needling or chemically, but fungal nail infection is one of the most common concerns. “Incidents of this have increased tenfold with the rise of nail bars, and it can take years to get rid of,” Birchley says, adding that you should always check tools are sterilised in an autoclave machine.
Pharmacy-bought fungal ointments have a 35-50 per cent success rate and work slowly as the infected nail has to grow out, she says, instead advocating laser therapy as it quickly targets the infection and has had 80 per cent efficacy in recent studies.
Long-term studies show that those with flat or pronating feet have far more incidents of back pain 20 years later than those with a balanced foot, Birchley says. “You can put someone in orthotics for a bunion and they’ll come in for a check-up and say their back feels better,” she adds. “Balancing on two legs is a finely honed combination of neural impulse, muscle control, balance and lots of joints in the spine. It’s a marvel.”
My foot assessment
My consultation is to assess a bunion in my left foot, a heredity condition exacerbated by a broken ankle. Birchley studies my gait and establishes that flat feet and the old injury are causing referred stiffness in my left hip, back and neck. While I’m a good candidate for surgery, I have low pain and good function, so she recommends custom-made orthotics to slow the progression, and that I swap thongs for motion-controlled Birkenstock-style sandals this summer.
I start wearing the orthotics daily and instantly notice my hips align to my neutral foot position and feel more stable and upright. Within a month, I realise my hip and back stiffness has lessened considerably.