The Gross Reason To Stop Going Sockless (And Other Foot Health Factoids)

Surprising truths about everything from barefoot walking to amputations.

November 10, 2017
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With the average person walking nearly 115,000 miles in [their] lifetime … our feet take significant physical abuse.

Earlier this week, I was talking to a few friends about our feet. It’s admittedly a weird topic to get into with friends, but hear me out.

It started with talk of shoe shopping and slowly digressed into complaints about foot pain, toenail problems, visits with the podiatrist. It was kind of funny—all of this time, I’ve assumed that experiencing foot pain wasn’t typical, that my endless search for comfortable and stylish shoes was just me, with my fallen arches and big feet, but this conversation revealed otherwise.

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I had one friend who was constantly battling athlete’s foot on her preschooler’s little feet, while another was having a really hard time with arch pain while running. Another had an entire toenail removed after months of fighting with an ingrown nail. I, on the other hand, was nursing a case of plantar fasciitis.

What I realized was that most of these women had foot problems and were actually dealing with them. I, on the other hand, had been ignoring my foot pain for years—outside of looking for better shoes.

It’s pretty common to struggle with foot problems, Mark Hinkes, doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM), tells me.

“With the average person walking nearly 115,000 miles in [their] lifetime … our feet take significant physical abuse,” he says. “It’s no wonder people suffer from a wide range of problems,” which can include bone, soft tissue, skin, and nail deformities.

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Many people dealing with foot pain, dermatological problems on their feet, or issues with the way they walk can find a link between their foot problems and the foot health habits they employ, according to Hinkes.

Yet foot care simply isn’t a priority for some. Are you guilty of these bad foot health habits?

Baring it All

There’s nothing wrong with going barefoot from time to time (more on that later), especially if the skin on your feet is intact. However, there is one common habit that everyone should avoid, according to Edgard Nau, MD, DPM, and that’s going sockless while wearing shoes.

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“The major concern is developing a fungal infection,” explains Nau, who owns Manhattan Home Podiatric. “The shoes [are] the perfect environment for fungi. It’s dark, it’s warm, and it’s moist.”

So to avoid the growth of foot fungus, for some it’s as simple as making sure you’re wearing socks.

Improper Trimming

Ingrown toenails can be incredibly painful and might earn you a house call from Dr. Nau. The next time you set out to do a little nail trimming, make sure you are careful not to set yourself up for nail problems in the future.

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If your feet and nails are healthy, nails should be cut straight across, according to Nau—avoid cutting into the corner to avoid ingrown nails. The rules might be different if you have problems with your feet, though, such as compromised feeling in your feet or vascular compromise caused by chronic health conditions.

Being Unsupportive

Many people have come to expect that they will experience foot pain after enough time standing or walking. While some level of foot pain may be unavoidable for certain individuals, the right amount of support can significantly improve overall foot health. Take a look at the video below to learn more about the dos and don’ts of footwear.

Do-it-Yourself Foot Care

Those do-it-yourself corn removal kits at your local drugstore might be tempting, but they’re actually not the solution to your foot problems. While there is nothing particularly harmful about those kits, they only address the symptom, according to Nau.

A habit that is bad for foot health is ‘bathroom surgery,’ where people often attempt to treat their own foot problems.

“I’d rather you figure out why you’re getting the corn in the first place,” says Nau, referring back to his comments about poorly fitting shoes.

Corns are caused by ill-fitting shoes. They develop because the body is trying to protect the joint underneath when there is too much pressure on the foot.

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And, although corn-removal kits are mostly harmless, individuals with vascular or neurological compromise to their feet should avoid them.

“What happens is folks leave them on longer than they should and the acid stays on there and actually causes an ulcer,” Nau explains. “If you’re diabetic, those are very dangerous.”

In general, trying to deal with foot problems on your own is a dangerous habit, says Hinkes.

“A habit that is bad for foot health is ‘bathroom surgery,’ where people often attempt to treat their own foot problems,” warns Hinkes. “This is a dangerous practice because they may not have the correct instrument for the problem and end up using what they have: a scissors, razor blade or tweezers. The use of these non-sterile, inappropriate instruments combined with poor lighting, bad vision, and faulty eye-motor coordination is a recipe for a foot health disaster.”

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So next time you’re faced with, say, an ingrown toenail, let the professionals do the doctoring.

Forgetting the Fungus

If you you have a problem with fungus, we have good news! There is plenty you can do to prevent it, according to Nau. Specifically, he suggests wearing socks made from natural fibers, avoiding wearing the same socks for two days in a row, and occasionally treating your shoes with an over-the-counter anti-fungal powder.

In any case, don’t ignore it. If you catch it early, you can prevent it from spreading.

“If you see any kind of changes in the color of your nails, like white streaks or white spots, get it checked out,” he advises. “ If you can prevent one nail unit being infected to the extent that the actual nail root is growing out fungus, you can prevent the whole foot from being infected.”

Always Wearing Shoes

Going sockless might be a problem for your feet, but don’t be nervous about ditching your shoes and socks altogether. There is actually some benefit to going without shoes from time to time, especially outdoors.

“It’s good to run in the sand barefoot,” encourages Nau. “It’s good exercise for the deep muscles in your foot.”

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Additionally, walking barefoot on the ground is natural. The transference of body weight when our bare feet hit the ground outdoors exposes our bodies to the least amount of stress while walking, according to The Washington Post.

When it comes to fear of picking up disease, the risk is minimal, according to The Washington Post. Diseases spread more often by hand than by foot, anyway, especially if there are no cuts on on our feet.

Not Taking Shoe Clues

Another fascinating fact about feet is that your shoes might be giving you clues about underlying problems with how you walk. Shoes wear over time—that’s only natural—but certain patterns of wearing might be a signal of a larger issues.

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“It’s normal for the outside part of the heel to wear down,” says Nau in reference to running shoes. “If you’re noticing wear in the center or the inside part [of your heel], you want to get that checked out, because you’re not striking the ground normally.”

If you’re not noticing any strange wear on your shoes, you should follow a few basic guidelines for replacing running shoes. Avid runners should replace their shoes every six months; Less active individuals should still replace them once a year. Even if they still look great on the outside, it’s important to replace them because the interior material will break down, according to Nau.

About Amputation

For individuals with diabetes, foot care simply isn’t optional. Taking care of your feet and watching for signs that there is something bigger going on is essential to protecting your health.

Of the 185,000 limb amputations in the United States each year, 54 percent are caused by vascular diseases like diabetes. In 2010, 73,000 diabetic American over the age of 20 had amputations, according to Healthline.

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“… and up to 85 percent of [diabetes related] amputations are preventable,” Hinkes says. And he’s right, according to a paper in the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders.

If you have diabetes, protecting yourself from serious foot problems is as simple as scheduling a yearly check up. Specifically, Hinkes suggests diabetic patients make sure they have a Comprehensive Diabetic Foot Health Screening with a podiatrist every single year. This test should include a monofilament test, a simple test that checks the foot for loss of sensation that would indicate neuropathy in the foot.

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