What are the best exercises for foot pain?

Question: What are the best exercises for foot pain?

Answer: I feel for the reader asking this question. Foot pain can make it difficult to keep up with everyday activities, let alone exercise. If you look at the anatomy of the foot, it has 26 bones, 33 joints, more than 20 muscles and more than 100 ligaments. With that many moving parts, there’s a lot that can cause pain. Search the internet for “causes of foot pain” and the Mayo Clinic website gives a list of 34 of “the most common conditions.”

Because there are so many conditions that cause foot pain, the first thing to do is find out what’s causing the pain. Seeing a podiatrist or someone who specializes in foot pain would be a good choice. Some conditions have specific treatments that relieve the pain and allow for more comfortable exercise. Others may need to decrease inflammation or allow healing of a sprain or a tear before adding exercises. Addressing the cause of the pain will help prevent overcompensation or shifting, which could cause additional pain or damage to another part of the foot or ankle. Many times, a specific condition may have exercises that work well to relieve the pain that a doctor can prescribe.

It’s important to keep the muscles in your feet strong to prevent injuries. If you wear shoes a majority of the time or you wear orthotics, doing strengthening foot exercises could be helpful. Shoes and orthotics don’t allow the structures of the feet to move freely enough to stay strong. So, taking off your shoes to work out the muscles in the foot may help with pain. Here a couple of exercises to try:

Towel scrunch

This works the small muscles of the feet and lower legs:

  • Sit in a chair with knees bent and feet touching the ground.
  • Lay a small hand towel on the floor under your bare feet.
  • Using only your toes, grab and release the towel, continuing to pull it closer to the chair.
  • Start with four reps on each foot, and over time slowly work up to doing 10 reps on each foot.

Towel drags

This works the side muscles of the foot:

  • Sit in a chair with knees bent and feet touching the ground.
  • Lay a small hand towel on the floor under your bare feet.
  • Keep your heel on the floor, rotate your right forefoot to the right.
  • Using the ball of the foot, drag the towel to the left for a set number of reps.
  • Switch to your left foot.
  • Start with four reps on each foot, and over time slowly work up to doing 10 reps on each foot.

In my experience, however, the best exercises for foot pain (if there is no specific treatment available) usually end up being stretches and massage—and I say this after working with many older clients who have had foot pain as well as having several conditions myself that cause foot pain (including osteoarthritis).

As I mentioned above, if the muscular anatomy in our feet is not being moved, it will shorten, tighten and can cause pain. And because our muscles are linked together (like a chain), poor foot mobility can cause problems up the chain to the ankle, knee, hips and lower back. Plus, our feet are crucial for our balance.

Foot stretches

My favorite stretch is a calf, foot and ankle stretch done with shoes off:

  • Sit in a chair with knees bent and feet touching the ground.
  • Straighten one leg to the front with the heel on the floor.
  • Place the center of a towel or wide strap at the ball of the foot.
  • Hold each end of the towel/strap and gently pull back, flexing the foot as you pull until you can feel a slight stretch.
  • Hold for 10-30 seconds. Switch feet.

foot massage technique

My favorite massage technique to help foot pain is to use a tennis ball or a soft pink rubber ball, and should be done with shoes off.

  • Sit in a chair with knees bent and feet touching the ground.
  • Place a ball under the ball of the foot and start to roll the ball around.
  • Try to roll the ball to each section of the foot: ball, arch, heel and side.
  • When you roll and find a sore or tender spot, spend about 30 seconds gently rolling that spot and then move on to another area. Switch feet.
  • If the pain is on the top of your foot, use your thumbs to gently massage any sore areas you find.

The most controllable thing to help with foot pain is buying proper footwear for your lifestyle. Technology has allowed us to create shoe and sock designs that accommodate just about any foot needs. Please check to ensure your shoes are not too loose or too tight, and that they’re not visibly worn in the heels or the arch.

As one final reminder, please refrain from wearing flip flops or any other type of shoe that has no foot bed or heel support. Having your foot slip off or out of a shoe can cause serious injuries to the muscles of the foot and ankle or even cause a fall.

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