Every week, almost half of all Australians experience foot pain. As foot health experts here at My FootDr, this comes as no surprise – our feet support the entire weight of our bodies, and with hundreds of moving parts, the role of our feet is more complex than many of us realise. With our feet being a small but mighty collection of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and nerves – when something is overloaded, out of place or not functioning quite right, it can be an easy road to foot pain.
As pain in the feet is always the result of an underlying issue or fault, understanding the cause of the problem is key in relieving your symptoms, treating any damage, and helping prevent it from returning in the future. Here are our top five reasons that you might be feeling pain at the top of your feet.
You may already know osteoarthritis as the wear and tear type of arthritis that often affects the knees, hips and the big toe joint – but the midfoot is also a very common site of osteoarthritis, and as such, is our #1 cause of pain at the top of the foot.
Midfoot osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that covers and protects the surface of the joints in the middle third of the foot thins or wears down, resulting in stiffness, swelling, pain and changes to the joints or bones themselves. All of these factors can make walking difficult and uncomfortable, with the pain primarily being felt at the top of the midfoot. Your symptoms tend to come on gradually over time, though may occur after an accident like dropping something on the foot or a Lisfranc’s injury (below)
To learn more about osteoarthritis in general, click here.
Your Lisfranc joint is where the five long bones of your feet, called your metatarsals, connect with the collection of tarsal bones, towards your ankle. A Lisfranc injury, or Lisfranc fracture, happens when your metatarsals become misplaced, fractured or sprained, which occurs when your foot is placed under excessive pressure or force.
This injury can occur directly – like from dropping something heavy on your foot or landing hard on your feet after jumping from a height which tears or sprains the ligaments supporting the joint – or indirectly – like tripping and twisting your foot at an angle that then strains your midfoot.
Extensor tendonitis is another common culprit of pain at the top of your foot. Your extensor tendons run along the front of your ankle and the top of your feet, connecting to your toes, and helping you point your toes upwards.
Tendonitis is the painful inflammation of the tendons, and it usually happens from overusing the feet and legs or overdoing it during exercise. Uphill running, especially when you go too hard too fast, or suddenly increase your distance or speed, is a common cause of extensor tendonitis as these tendons must work hard to lift the toes up and clear the ground as you run uphill. Wearing shoes that are too tight can also contribute to the problem as these tendons lie near the surface of the foot without much padding or protection.
While it can sometimes affect both feet, you’re more likely to experience foot pain from extensor tendonitis in one foot – and it’s likely to be your leading foot (yes – just like how you can be right-handed, you can be right-footed!). As you continue to push through and use your feet without treating the problem, the pain at the top of your foot is likely to gradually get worse, and you may start to feel more weakness in your feet.
High Arches in Tight Shoes
If you know you have high arches, or your significant other complains that you ‘stomp around the house like an elephant’ (a telltale sign of a high-arched foot that doesn’t absorb shock well), your shoes may be the problem.
Having high arches can already cause a number of pains in the feet since the pressure is more heavily focused on the balls and heel of your foot, rather than moving evenly through your foot during each step. Shoes can add to the problem, as the standard shoe width may not be sufficient to comfortably accommodate the height of your arch. The result is pressure, rubbing and irritation on the top of your foot, which also makes you more vulnerable to tendonitis.
If you have high arches, opt for shoes that come in extra wide fittings to give yourself more room, and adjust your lacing techniques – not so tight, and end the laces without using the last two eyelets.
Nerve issues feel unique to other causes of pain at the top of the foot since they also cause prickling, tingling, burning and numbing sensations alongside the pain. Since our nerves run from our spine, down our legs and to the feet, the origin of the pain may be much further up the leg than where we feel the symptoms.
Peripheral neuropathy is a nerve problem caused by damaged nerves. It occurs when the malfunctioning nerves send pain signals when there is nothing specific causing the pain. Peripheral neuropathy may be a result of a physical injury, a medical condition like diabetes, an infection, and more.
Peroneal nerve dysfunction may also cause symptoms on the top of the foot, ranging from mild to severe pain, and may even cause weakness, feeling loss and movement difficulties in the affected foot and leg. Causes of this nerve disorder include knee trauma, a leg fracture, the use of a tight cast, frequently crossing legs, and wearing high-heeled boots.
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in your bones that happen when excess stress or pressure is applied to a bone. Unlike a regular fracture that happens instantly, stress fractures come on slowly and gradually, starting as a dull ache or niggle and progressing into a sharp pain as the cracks grow and the stress fracture worsens. Causes include long bouts of exercise without adequate foot support, certain activities like jumping, carrying heavy objects (like a hiking backpack) for long periods, or simply and commonly from running.
What To Do When Your Foot Hurts
If you’ve got pain at the top of your feet, or are getting foot pain when walking, you podiatrist should be your first port of call. Unfortunately, while many people try to wait out their pain in the hopes that it’ll get better on its own, for the majority of people, continuing to walk on aching feet will only make the damage worse.