Introduction 

Foot pain is a common problem with a wide range of possible causes. You should see your GP if it is severe or persistent.

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. You may find our advice on choosing sports shoes helpful.

The information below 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 or a podiatrist (a specialist in diagnosing and treating foot problems) for proper diagnosis and treatment advice.

Common causes of foot pain

Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains affect muscles and ligaments. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue around joints that connect one bone to another.

You may have sprained the muscles and ligaments in your foot if you have done more activity than you are used to. The tissues in your foot may have been stretched or twisted, but they will not be permanently damaged.

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, known as "turf toe", is often seen in dancers and footballers who play on artificial turf.

Gout

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.

Gout usually affects the joint of the big toe first before affecting other joints. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between gout and a severely inflamed bunion.

Read more about treating gout.

Verruca

verruca is a growth on the sole of the foot. It can be painful because the weight of your body can force it to grow back into your skin.

Verrucas are fairly easy to identify. They look like small, flat white circles of skin that often have a black dot (a blood vessel) in the centre.

Read more about treating verrucas

Bunion

bunion is a bony swelling at the base of the big toe that can be painful and difficult to walk on. Bunions are a common foot problem, particularly in women. The big toe points towards the other toes and the big toe joint sticks out, forming a bony lump.

This animation about bunions shows how a bunion forms and is treated.

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 be painful and difficult to walk on.

Read more about the treatment of an ingrown toenail.

Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is damage to the tough band of tissue (fascia) that runs under the sole of the foot, which causes pain in the heel. It's often brought on by an activity such as running, or sometimes happens after a gradual wearing down of the foot tissues.

Read more about how to treat plantar fasciitis.

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 how Morton's neuroma is treated.

Strain or pressure on the ball of your foot

Pain on the ball of your foot may be caused by a condition called metatarsalgia, which has a number of possible causes.

Metatarsalgia is often described as a burning or aching pain that ranges from mild to severe and 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 your foot can bring on the pain – for example, wearing tight-fitting shoes for a long period of time, high impact sports, or being overweight. Older people are more susceptible to getting metatarsalgia. 

Read more about how metatarsalgia is treated.

Arthritis

In older people, repeated episodes of foot pain can signify a sudden worsening of osteoarthritis, which is 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.

Read more about treating osteoarthritis.

Less commonly, foot pain can be caused by rheumatoid arthritis, which is a 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 will not be your only symptom.

Read more about treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Achilles tendonitis

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 often be relieved by painkillers, rest and an ice pack.

Read more about treating tendonitis.

Oedema

If your whole foot is painful, heavy and swollen, it may be a sign of oedema. Oedema 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 your whole lower leg, too. See your GP or, if the pain and swelling is severe, go to your nearest hospital accident and emergency (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. It may therefore 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 bones of your foot. This is known as a stress fracture.

Stress fractures most commonly occur in the:

  • bones leading to the second and third toes (metatarsals)
  • heel
  • 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 avoid putting weight on your foot until you see a doctor.

Tendonitis: an animation

Tendonitis is a painful condition caused by swollen or injured tendons in the body. This animation explains the condition in detail.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Foot problems: a visual guide

Foot problems: a visual guide

A visual guide to some common foot problems, including athlete's foot, corns, calluses and bunions

Getting help from the podiatrist

Taking care of your feet is essential. Here's how podiatrists and chiropodists can help

Page last reviewed: 08/05/2013

Next review due: 08/05/2015