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What is foot pain?

The foot is one of the most complex parts of the body. It consists of 38 bones connected by numerous joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, and is susceptible to many stresses. As a result, foot and ankle problems are a common reason for visits to a doctor's office (4.8 million office visits a year, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons). Foot problems may be caused by pain, inflammation or injury, thereby limiting a person's range of motion (and in some cases, a person's quality of life).

Foot pain is caused by a variety of conditions, most often improper foot function or poor posture. In fact, the most common reason for people to have foot problems is a condition called abnormal pronation, in which the foot does not strike and/or leave the ground as it is supposed to. However, several other factors can cause (or lead to) foot pain. Footwear can worsen and, in some cases, produce foot problems. Shoes that are too tight, for instance, can increase pressure and stress, while shoes that are too loose can let the foot slide and rub, creating friction. Overuse and exercise-related problems can also cause foot pain.

There are various types of fot problems that may affect the heels, toes, nerves, tendons, ligaments and joints of the foot. Among the most common types of foot problems are heel spurs (an abnormal growth on the heel bone); corns (yellowish callous growths that develop on the top of the toes); bunions (a protrusion of bone or tissue around a joint); neuromas (a buildup of tissue in the nerves running between the long bones of the foot); or hammertoes (a condition that causes the middle joint of the toe to poke out).

Who suffers from foot pain?

Nearly everyone suffers from some form of foot pain during their lifetime. The condition is most prevalent in infants and newborns just learning to walk, and people over age 50. Women who wear high-heeled shoes are also more susceptible to foot pain, as are athletes who either do not warm up their feet prior to exercise, or who use improper foot techniques while exercising.

What can acupuncture do?

Studies have shown acupuncture to be effective in relieving certain types of foot pain. A study published in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine in 1996 found acupuncture to be effective in relieving otherwise unresponsive chronic foot pain. A 1999 study, meanwhile, found that electrical stimulation of acupoints on the feet could increase blood flow to the foot and lower leg. There have also been anecdotal reports of individual acupuncturists using different techniques to relieve pain associated with the ankle, heel, and ball of the foot.

As with any other form of care, however, remember that not all patients will respond to all forms of treatment. Make sure to discuss the situation thoroughly with your acupuncturist before undergoing treatment for foot pain.

  • Birch S, Hammerschlag R. Acupuncture Efficacy: A Compendium of Controlled Clinical Studies. Tarrytown, NY: National Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, August 1996.
  • Chen BX, Zhao YL. Treatment of painful heel with combined method of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine. Clinical analysis of 900 cases. Chin Med J Jul 1985;98(7):471-4.
  • Erickson RJ, Edwards B. Medically unresponsive foot pain treated successfully with acupuncture. Acupuncture in Medicine November 1996.
  • Noguchi E, Ohsawa H, Kobayahi S, et al. The effect of electroacupuncture stimulation on the muscle blood flow of the hindlimb in anesthesized rats. J Auton Nerv Syst Feb 15, 1999;75(2-3):78-86.
  • Steinmetz M. Treatment choices for plantar fasciitis. Am Fam Physician Dec 1999;60(9):250-54.
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