Foot pain is a common problem with a wide range of possible causes. If it is severe or persistent, you should see your GP.
This page summarises the main possible causes of pain in the foot, toes or heel (heel pain is covered in more detail separately).
If you think your foot pain may be caused by shoes that don't fit or are uncomfortable, consider investing in flat-heeled shoes that provide enough space and support for your feet.
The below information focuses on foot pain caused by an underlying health condition or problem with the foot. It aims to give you an idea as to what the problem might be but shouldn't be used for self-diagnosis. Always see your GP for a proper diagnosis and treatment advice.
Common causes of foot pain
If you have done more activity than you're used to, your pain may just be a foot sprain. This means that tissues in the foot have been stretched but aren't permanently damaged. Read more about sprains and strains.
An example of a sprain may be pain and swelling at the base of the big toe caused by spraining the ligaments around the big toe joint. This condition is known as turf toe and is commonly seen in dancers and footballers who play on artificial turf.
Gout is a type of arthritis caused by a build-up of uric acid (a waste product) in the body. Crystals of uric acid can form in the joint of your big toe, causing severe pain and inflammation even when you're resting.
Usually, gout affects the joint of the big toe first before it affects other joints. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between gout and a severely inflamed bunion.
Read about the treatment of gout.
A verruca is a growth on the sole of the foot, which can be painful because the weight of your body can force it to grow back into your skin.
It is fairly easy to spot a verruca. It looks like small, flat white circle of skin that often has a black dot (a blood vessel) in the centre.
Read about how verrucas are treated.
A bunion is a bony swelling at the base of the big toe that can be painful and difficult to walk on. It's a common condition, especially among women. The big toe points towards the other toes and the big toe joint sticks out, forming the bony lump.
Infected ingrown toenail
An ingrown toenail occurs when the sides of the toenail grow into the surrounding skin. The toenail pierces the skin, which becomes red, swollen and tender. If it becomes infected, the toe will become painful and difficult to walk on.
Learn about the treatment of an ingrown toenail.
Plantar fasciitis is damage to the tough band of tissue running under the sole of the foot, which causes pain in the heel. It's brought on by activity such as jogging or sometimes happens after a gradual wearing down of the foot tissues.
Less common causes of foot pain
A nerve problem
Sometimes, the nerve that divides between the toe bones becomes irritated or squashed, leading to a sharp, severe pain in the base of the toes. This painful condition is called Morton's neuroma. The exact cause isn't always known, although a number of problems seem to aggravate it, such as wearing high-heeled shoes or having flat feet.
The pain usually affects the third and fourth toes and will suddenly start when you're walking. Pain is relieved by removing the shoe.
Read about the treatment of Morton's neuroma.
Strain or pressure on the ball of your foot
When foot pain comes from the ball of your foot, it's likely to be a condition called metatarsalgia, which has a range of possible causes.
Metatarsalgia is described as a burning or aching pain that ranges from mild to severe and often gets worse when you move. It can affect one or two toes near the ball of your foot or sometimes the whole foot.
Anything that puts extra strain or pressure on the ball of the foot can bring it on - for example, wearing tight-fitting shoes for a long period of time, high-impact sports, or being overweight. Older people are also more susceptible.
Read about the treatment of metatarsalgia.
In older people, repeated attacks of foot pain can be a sudden worsening of osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis in the UK.
Osteoarthritis causes swelling of the tissues in and around the joints, including the big toe and heel joints. Learn about the treatment of osteoarthritis.
Less commonly, foot pain can be caused by rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling type of arthritis caused by the immune system attacking the joints and causing the joint tissues to become inflamed. It almost always affects other joints too, so foot pain won't be your only symptom.
If you have damaged the Achilles tendon at the back of your heel (for example, after twisting your ankle), it may lead to inflammation of the tendon, otherwise known as tendonitis.
Achilles tendonitis causes pain and stiffness in the back of the heel, which can usually be relieved by painkillers and an ice pack.
See the treatment of tendonitis page for more information.
If the whole foot is painful, heavy and swollen, it may be a sign of oedema. This is a build-up of fluid (mainly water) in the body's tissues, causing swelling to occur in the affected area. Oedema will usually affect the whole lower leg too. See your GP or, if the pain and swelling is severe, go to your nearest hospital A&E department.
An object embedded in your foot
Foot pain can sometimes be caused by an object that has become embedded in the foot. Therefore it may be worth considering whether you have stepped on something sharp with bare feet, and examining your foot for a wound.
A cracked bone (stress fracture)
If you do a lot of high-impact sports, such as long-distance running or basketball, the cause of your painful and swollen foot may be a small crack in one of the foot bones. This is known as a stress fracture.
Stress fractures most commonly occur in the:
- bones leading to the second and third toes (metatarsals)
- outer bone of the lower leg
- bone on top of the midfoot
The fracture area will be tender to touch and the skin may be bruised. You should stop all activity immediately and try not to put weight on the foot until you see a doctor.
Last updated: 23 October 2012