You've probably heard that the eyes are the window to the soul. But has anybody ever told you that the feet are the window to the body?
A number of body-wide health issues can disguise themselves as foot problems. So we checked in with Simon Lee, MD, a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, about what your feet might be trying to tell you.
"The most common reason for neuropathy in the feet is diabetes," says Lee, explaining that elevated blood sugar causes damage to nerves.
An unsteady gait that can cause a fall is one risk of neuropathy. Another is that loss of feeling might prevent you from noticing a cut or sore (see below) that can quickly turn into a dangerous infection.
Everyone's feet fall asleep now and then. But if you regularly notice tingling that lasts longer than a few minutes, see your primary care doctor.
Might be a sign of: Diabetes or peripheral vascular disease
In addition to causing nerve damage, high blood sugar might also damage the blood vessels that supply nerves, causing circulation problems that prevent healing.
"Something as simple as a blister on the heel, left untreated, can lead to a serious bone infection," Lee says. This could lead to hospitalization and, in extreme cases, amputation.
If you have a sore that won't heal after three to seven days even though it's not continuing to be irritated (by a poorly fitting shoe, for example), see your doctor.
Might be a sign of: Heart failure, kidney disease, liver disease or a blood clot
Painless swelling in the feet is basically gravity in action. If your heart, liver or kidneys aren't working properly, you'll have excess fluid in the body that leaks into your tissues and drains down into the feet.
If the swelling is painful, seek medical help immediately: It could mean that you have deep vein thrombosis, or a clot that's blocking the flow of blood. If the clot breaks free, it could travel to your lung and cause a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism.
Might be a sign of: Gout
Gout is an inflammation caused by a buildup of uric acid that forms crystals in the joints. It is a painful condition that can lead to kidney problems if left untreated.
Fortunately, gout is generally treatable with medications and dietary adjustments, Lee notes.
For example, your physician might advise you to avoid these foods:
When the same exact symptoms affect both feet at once, it's much more likely to be an issue related to something other than your feet.
Might be a sign of: A stress fracture, which could in turn be a sign of osteoporosis
Stress fractures are hairline cracks in the bone most often caused by repeated stress such as running long distances.
If Lee sees a patient with a stress fracture who's not an endurance athlete, he'll likely order a bone density test (DEXA scan) and blood studies to check for calcium and vitamin D deficiencies.
Might be a sign of: Rheumatoid arthritis
Foot and ankle specialists are often the first to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis. The telltale symptom: pain in both feet.
"When the same exact symptoms affect both feet at once," Lee says, "it's much more likely to be an issue related to something other than your feet."
It's important to make sure your primary care doctor checks your feet regularly. "Anybody can get into trouble quickly if they have a foot problem," Lee explains.
That goes double if you have diabetes: The No. 1 reason diabetics are admitted to the hospital is complications with their feet.
To keep your feet healthy and catch any issues early, follow these essential tips for general foot care:
Sign up now for free health tips and medical news.