Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Where do you want your feet to take you today? If you’re suffering from pain and swelling in the balls of your feet, you might find you don’t get much farther than the sofa.
Don’t shrug off ball of foot pain, also called metatarsalgia, as a natural part of getting older—or simply a minor inconvenience. Just because you don’t need to go to the ER doesn’t mean it’s not an emergency! Any painful foot condition that prevents you from exercising, working, or enjoying your lifestyle should be treated as soon as possible.
Fortunately, most conditions that cause these symptoms can be reversed without surgery, even when you’ve been dealing with chronic pain for months or years.
Why Does It Hurt?
If you look at the bottom of your foot, you’ll note two areas that are protected by a thick layer of fatty padding. Your heel, which must absorb the initial impact of your steps, is the first. The second area, just below the toes, is the ball of the foot. This region takes the brunt of the force as you push off. Unfortunately, that padding alone isn’t always enough to save you from pain.
It’s important to note that the term “metatarsalgia” describes a range of symptoms rather than a specific medical condition per se. Your ball of foot pain might be caused by, for example, swollen nerve tissue (Morton’s neuroma), cracked metatarsal bones (stress fractures), swollen sesamoid bones (sesamoiditis), arthritis, or something else entirely.
During your appointment, we’ll make sure we can get an accurate diagnosis, as this may inform our treatment advice.
Soothing Ball of Foot Pain
If the balls of your feet hurt, the following remedies may help reduce or alleviate the discomfort.
Take a break.
Are you always on the go? Maybe you have a job or hobbies that require you to be on your feet for long periods of time. Maybe you love to go on long runs or hikes every other day, or play a tough, high-impact sport like basketball. These activities can all stress the balls of your feet and lead to temporary and inflammation. Oftentimes, a short break from high-impact activity will cause the pain to subside and allow swollen tissues to heal.
Control swelling with ice.
Selective application of ice can really help a ton when pain and swelling strike. However, you want to be careful to do it safely. If your tissues get too cold for too long, you can damage them.
To stay on the soft side, only apply ice for about 20 minutes at a time, three or four times per day at most. Never apply ice directly to the skin. If you’re using a bag of ice (or even some frozen veggies) rather than a medical cold pack, be sure to wrap it in a thin towel first to avoid damaging the skin.
Try a pain reliever.
Simple over-the-counter anti-inflammatories are often a good choice if the balls of your feet hurt. Check with your doctor first to be sure you can take them safely, and make sure to follow the dosage recommendations on the bottle (or your doctor’s recommendations, if different).
If you still struggle with pain, we can also prescribe tougher medication or provide an injection.
Stretch and massage your aching feet.
A little big of home-based physical therapy can not only help ease tension and reduce pain, but also improve flexibility and increase strength. That makes the balls of your feet more resistant to future pain and injury.
Stop wearing those high heels!
The balls of your feet have a tough enough job under ideal circumstances. The metatarsal bones must take a lot of the stress when you propel yourself forward or upward. When you wear high heels, you take all that weight and pressure plop it squarely on a tiny spot at the front of the foot. In addition to pain, this could even contribute to destabilization of the big toe joint, and ultimately produce a bunion or hammertoe.
We generally recommend you avoid high heels, especially if you have a history of foot pain. To the extent that you must wear them, please only do so rarely, for short periods of time, and the lower and chunkier the heel, the better.
Check your everyday shoes, too.
High heels might get all the press, but they’re far from the only style of shoe linked to ball of foot pain. Ballet flats, flip flops, or any style of shoes without sufficient cushioning or arch support in the insoles will force your feet to take a greater share of the impact.
You also, of course, want to be sure that your shoes will actually fit. Shoes with especially tight, narrow, or pointed toe boxes are notorious for causing ball of foot pain.
Look into extra support or protection for your feet.
If your pain is linked with a fundamental imbalance in your foot structure—flat arches, abnormally long metatarsals, etc.—then even a good pair of shoes might not be enough. Upon evaluation, we may recommend additional inserts to assist your feet, which may include:
Prefabricated arch supports
Modify your activities or environment.
No, we’re not asking you to get a new hobby or quit your job. But it’s also worth asking the question—are there any common-sense changes to your behavior or environment that would reduce the daily amount of stress on your feet and ankles? The specific steps you take will vary depending on your lifestyle, but here are some examples:
Place squishy mats or rugs in the kitchen, at your workstation, or any other locations where you tend to do a lot of standing.
Choose a running route with fewer hills or softer terrain.
Mix up your exercise plan a bit so you aren’t overloaded with high-impact exercises. For example, try switching out a day of running or tennis with cycling or swimming.
Always warm up and stretch before exercise.
Ease into new activities slowly and give your body time to adjust.
What about surgery?
Surgery for ball of foot pain is rare—probably 95% or more of cases can be resolved without it, especially if there are no other conditions or symptoms. Still, some conditions may warrant it. For example, pain from an existing bunion, hammertoe, arthritis, or other structural misalignment may be best addressed with surgery.
Don’t Forget to Book Your Appointment!
If ball of foot pain isn’t going away or keeps coming back—or ever becomes severe enough to really get in the way of living your life—please give us a call so we can take a look! Our team of foot and ankle specialists are experts in diagnosing and treating all kinds of foot conditions, and can offer the latest and greatest research and care.
To book at our Metairie office, give us a call at (504) 708-4810. For Covington, dial (985) 809-1464.