When people talk about getting sick, most people think of a respiratory or gastrointestinal problem—the cold, the flu, the unfortunate consequences of a bad meal, etc. But your feet can get sick, too! While in many cases such illness can show up anywhere on the body—skin cancer, for example—there are a number of illnesses that only occur in the feet, tend to strike the feet before spreading elsewhere, or affect feet in ways that produce unique challenges.
Plunging Feet First Into Systemic Problems
Feet are often the first place you will notice system-wide nervous or vascular conditions. Your feet are the furthest possible point from the heart, lungs, and brain, and must also contend with the pressures of holding up your entire body weight.
Peripheral neuropathy—a condition in which nerves slowly decay due to damage or lack of nutrition. Lower legs and potentially the hands are the first areas where symptoms become present, but in time the burning, tingling pain or even outright numbness can spread throughout the body without treatment.
The same goes for many vascular conditions. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a slowing of circulation in the extremities and often caused by a buildup of plaque in blood vessels. In the short term, that could mean pain, cramping, swelling and ulcers that are slow to heal. Claudication is muscle pain or cramping that occurs during walking or exercising and is a significant red flag. The symptoms go away after rest but return with activity. If plaque is building up in the arteries of your legs, there’s a good chance it’s forming elsewhere, including the heart and vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the brain. Today you might have a PAD diagnosis; tomorrow it may be a heart attack or stroke.
Another condition of note is rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory disease where your immune system attacks your own tissues. RA can involve joints that have a lot of motion (synovial joints) throughout the body, but the tiny joints of your toes and feet are often the first to be damaged. There are different forms of arthritis that may also mimic RA.
Diseases that Challenge the Feet in Special Ways
Diseases that tend to affect multiple areas of the body (whether independently, sequentially, or all at once) can pose particularly frustrating challenges when they show up on the feet, due to the unique role that they play or the difficulty of making a diagnosis.
Skin cancer. Feet are also susceptible to the same skin lesions that sun-exposed areas like the nose and shoulders develop, especially if you like to wear sandals outside without proper sunscreen. Not all skin cancers need be related to UV exposure. Some cases of malignant melanoma may be triggered in protected areas like the soles of feet. Unfortunately, since feet are somewhat less likely to be rigorously checked for areas of discoloration, spots that change in size, or bleeding, it may take much longer for you to notice this type of troubled spot. This can significantly delay and impair treatment outcomes.
Of course, the textbook example of a disease that poses particular risks to the feet is diabetes. We’ve already talked a bit about PAD and neuropathy; both of those conditions are often linked with diabetes, and in combination they can wreak havoc on feet and ankles, leading to skin infections, ulcers, and potentially even amputations if you aren’t carefully protecting your feet, managing sugar levels, and routinely checking for injuries every day.
Fighting Disease One Foot (or Two) at a Time
We’ve really only scratched the surface here—we haven’t even mentioned gout, a particularly painful dietary disease that often leads to pain in the big toe—but we think you get the point. Feet can get sick, and when they do it’s often a sign of a wider problem that needs to be addressed.
While our office specializes in foot and ankle care, we’re focused on your full body health. We’re not just in the business of fixing hammertoes or heel pain; we are laser-focused on keeping the entire “you” active, healthy, and happy. If you have a disease that affects your feet, we’ll do everything we can to help you beat it, including providing any referrals to other specialists and keeping in regular contact with your general practitioner or other members of your medical team.
If you have any concerns whatsoever about your foot health, please call the office of Jeffrie C. Leibovitz, D.P.M. today at 317-545-0505.