Foot Pain: Causes, Treatment, and Exercises for Sore Feet

Learn more about what causes pain in your feet and get tips for treating and preventing it with exercises from our physical therapists.

woman-with-foot-pain-sitting-on-the-floor

Foot Pain: Causes, Treatment, and Exercises for Sore Feet

Learn more about what causes pain in your feet and get tips for treating and preventing it with exercises from our physical therapists.

woman-with-foot-pain-sitting-on-the-floor

Foot Pain: Causes, Treatment, and Exercises for Sore Feet

Learn more about what causes pain in your feet and get tips for treating and preventing it with exercises from our physical therapists.

woman-with-foot-pain-sitting-on-the-floor

Foot Pain: Causes, Treatment, and Exercises for Sore Feet

Learn more about what causes pain in your feet and get tips for treating and preventing it with exercises from our physical therapists.

woman-with-foot-pain-sitting-on-the-floor
Table of Contents

Your feet are the base of your body, and when they hurt — whether it’s due to a tight pair of shoes, an injury, or a medical condition — everything else can hurt. And it can understandably disrupt your daily routine.

“When there's an injury down in the foot, it's not uncommon to also see pain higher up in the body due to nerve, muscle, and fascial tissue connections from head to foot,” says Lori Walter, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “If you can't fully step on your right foot, you might put more weight onto your left side, which could result in hurting your left knee. Or you might walk more on the outside of the foot, and now your hip or back is sore. Foot pain can cause other problems because of these types of compensations.”

Many Hinge Health members can attest to the benefits of targeted foot exercises and working with a physical therapist to address foot pain. 

"I could hardly put weight on my foot when I first got up in the mornings. But now I can get up and instantly walk. I feel stronger, have less pain, and am back walking two miles in the mornings," one member told us. Another recently shared that “the mobility in my foot is improving drastically. I've gained confidence back in my foot, and I think less about whether an activity will cause foot pain."

Here, learn more about what causes foot pain and how to prevent and manage it — especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Lori Walter, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Walter is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 20 years of experience working with orthopedic injuries, pelvic health, and sports medicine.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Foot Pain?

Foot pain is a general term for pain in or around the foot, such as the toes, heels, arches, or soles. Your feet are one of the most complex areas of your body with 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Did you know that nearly a quarter of your body’s bones are in your feet? The largest is the calcaneus (or heel bone) directly below the ankle. On top of the calcaneus is the talus, which is part of the ankle joint. Five irregularly shaped tarsal bones form the arch, and five slender metatarsals comprise part of the forefoot. The toes in the forefoot contain 14 bones called phalanges.

“The bones are stacked like a horizontal Jenga set,” says Dr. Walter. “The foot needs to be stable and flexible. It needs to be strong to keep you upright and able to adapt to different surfaces.”

It’s quite a balancing act. Your feet are the foundation of your body. They act as shock absorbers, dispersing the impact of every step you take. And when something is off with your feet, it can affect the rest of your body, like in a game of Jenga. 

Foot Pain Symptoms

Foot pain can present in various ways, from sharp, stabbing pain to a dull ache. The pain may be localized in the heel, arch, or big toe or radiate throughout the foot. Symptoms may include:

  • Sharp stabbing pain

  • Pain on weight bearing

  • Stiffness and swelling

  • Redness

  • Throbbing

  • Deep, bony pain

  • Pain when you get out of bed in the morning

Foot Pain: A Hinge Health Perspective

“Not all pain is bad,” says Dr. Walter. “Pain is the body’s natural response when something changes. It’s a warning signal.” Pain can get you to change your shoes if they're too tight. If you’re out for a run, pain can get you to slow down. When you notice pain, you want to proceed cautiously and figure out what’s causing it. You don’t necessarily have to stop everything you’re doing.

Lori Walter, PT, DPT
Pain is more like a yellow light signal, not a stop sign, especially since movement is medicine.

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The right types of movement, like the exercises below, can help to heal foot pain often better than complete bed rest. 

Causes of Foot Pain

Your feet may hurt for many reasons. Lifestyle factors like the types of shoes you wear, how well they fit your feet, and the activities you do can all contribute to foot pain for various reasons. For example, wearing tight-fitting shoes can cause blisters, corns, calluses, and other issues. Cutting toenails too short may lead to ingrown toenails.

You also have some control over causes that may seem beyond your control, like the structure of your feet.

Flat feet are more mobile, so tendons and ligaments work harder to control the motion, which can lead to inflammation and overuse injuries like plantar fasciitis and tendinitis. You can be born with flat feet, or your feet may flatten over time due to an injury, a lack of support, or stretching from weight or pregnancy. No matter the cause, you’re not destined to have foot pain. Some people with flat feet don’t experience pain. Specific exercises and supportive footwear can help prevent problems.

High arches cause feet to be more rigid. A lack of flexibility can result in excess pressure in certain spots, such as the ball of the foot. This can result in problems like stress fractures or metatarsalgia, an inflammation in the ball of the foot. Stretches and footwear with more cushioning can help protect feet with high arches.

Here are some other common causes of foot pain: 

  • Plantar fasciitis is the irritation or inflammation of the plantar fascia, a strong band of tissue on the bottom of the foot that connects the heel to the front of the foot and supports the arch. Pain usually occurs on the bottom of the heel and is often more noticeable when you get out of bed in the morning or after activity. It’s the most common cause of heel pain and afflicts more than 2 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

  • Metatarsalgia is inflammation in the ball of the foot and often occurs when walking or standing for long periods of time.

  • Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation of the tendon in the back of the leg that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. While the pain is often felt higher in the ankle area, it may also appear lower in the heel. Excessive activity or tight calf muscles often contribute to this condition.

  • Arthritis Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It’s characterized by changes in the shock-absorbing cartilage around a joint that can result in inflammation. While these changes are part of aging and don’t necessarily cause symptoms, they can contribute to foot pain, especially around the big toe, and stiffness for some people.

  • Fractures Accidents, falls, or other injuries can cause a bone to break. Overuse and repetitive activity can cause stress fractures or tiny cracks in bones.

  • Bone spurs are bony growths due to increased tension in an area of the foot. The heel and big toe are common areas where bone spurs develop. Not all bone spurs cause pain.

  • Morton’s neuroma causes pain in the ball of the foot due to nerve compression. It can feel like walking on a pebble or marble and cause burning, sharp pain, tingling or numbness.

  • Diabetes can cause nerve damage in the feet that over time results in diabetic neuropathy, a condition characterized by pain, tingling, and loss of sensation in the feet.

  • Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis that causes pain and swelling in joints, often the big toe, due to high uric acid levels. Flare-ups can happen intermittently or more frequently, and certain foods and alcohol can trigger them.

How to Prevent Foot Pain

It’s not always possible to prevent foot pain, but there are ways to avoid some pain and minimize or manage other types.

Get the right fit. According to a study in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, nearly three-quarters of the participants were wearing shoes that were the wrong length or width for their feet. The next time you buy shoes, have your feet measured to ensure you get the right size and width. It’s best to shop later in the day, since your feet get a little larger over the course of the day as you walk on them. 

Since sizes aren’t standard, always try on shoes before buying them. Make sure you have room in the front of the shoe for your toes to spread out. The back of the shoe should be snug to prevent your heel from slipping. If a shoe isn’t immediately comfortable, don’t buy it. You shouldn’t have to break in a shoe.

Match shoes to your activities. This goes for athletic and everyday footwear. Running and walking shoes are specially designed for forward motion, while court shoes provide more support for the lateral movements of basketball, tennis, or pickleball. Keep this in mind for everyday activities, too. If you’ll be on your feet running errands all day, wear something with more support than flimsy flip-flops. A supportive, cushioned shoe with a wider toe box will keep your feet happier.

Replace shoes regularly. Athletic shoes often wear out on the inside before you notice it on the outside. Hinge Health experts suggest changing shoes every 350 to 500 miles. This is when athletic shoes tend to lose their cushioning and support, which can put extra stress on joints.

Start slow. Skipping a warm-up or increasing your activity or mileage too quickly can be tough on your feet and predispose you to injuries. Instead, ease into activities and gradually build up the amount you do to prevent foot pain and other types of injuries. This advice goes for non-exercise activities, too. If you normally sit all day, start standing and walking more throughout the day before you spend an entire day on your feet sightseeing or walking around an amusement park.

Change things up. If you stand for hours daily, take a break and put your feet up. If you walk or run the same route every time you go out, try a new one or do the route in reverse. If you wear heels to work, take them off a few times throughout the day and stretch your feet.

Maintain a healthy weight for you. The ideal weight is different for everyone, but maintaining a body weight that works for you can help reduce extra pressure on your feet.

Do exercise therapy. Targeted movements, exercises, and stretches increase the strength and flexibility of the structures in and around your feet. The exercises below will strengthen your feet but don’t forget about the rest of your body. A strong core supports your body and decreases strain on the feet.

When to See a Doctor

Most of the time, you can manage foot pain at home. However, you should seek medical attention if you have any of these symptoms: 

  • You’re unable to bear weight on your foot. 

  • You have severe pain after an accident or injury.

  • You have an open wound.

  • The pain doesn’t get better after a few weeks.

  • You can’t move your foot.

  • You have notable swelling or bruising on your feet.

  • Pain is accompanied by fever, redness, and swelling.

Treatment for Foot Pain

The best course of treatment for foot pain depends a lot on the nature and cause of the pain. The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for most cases of mild to moderate foot pain.

Give your feet some PEACE & LOVE. The RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) has been a longstanding model for self-care, but PEACE & LOVE offers a new, more comprehensive approach to foot pain relief.

Adjust your walking routine. Walking is beneficial for foot pain, but you may need to make some tweaks to your routine to help your body adapt. You might want to adjust your stride to make walking easier for you, depending on the nature of your foot pain. A longer stride puts more pressure on the heel, while a shorter stride shifts pressure to the midfoot or ball of the foot. Your walking speed also affects the amount of impact you put on your foot. If you’re up for it, try brisk walking, but take it slower if that’s what your body needs.

Try adjusting these two variables to find a comfortable way to walk. “They’re healthy alterations as opposed to hopping around on the other foot, not putting weight on it at all, or putting all your weight on another part of the foot,” says Dr. Walter.

Put your feet up. Elevating your feet above your heart can reduce inflammation and pain.

Ice and heat. Icing can take down swelling and inflammation and can help with acute and chronic foot pain. Heating increases blood flow and can reduce stiffness. You can apply heat or ice as needed for 20 minutes at a time but avoid using heat to treat a new injury as this can delay healing. 

Try orthotics. Shoe inserts can redistribute pressure, support hypermobile feet, or cushion rigid feet. You can get over-the-counter orthotics or custom-made ones from a podiatrist. A physical therapist can help you decide what option is best for you.

Roll your feet. Use a frozen bottle of water or a tennis ball — whichever you prefer — to gently roll the sole of your foot forward and back. Adjust the pressure so it’s comfortable as you stretch and massage your foot.

While all of the above steps can help with foot pain, one of the most effective is exercise therapy.

Exercises for Foot Pain

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This exercise strengthens the bottom of the foot.

Stretching and strengthening the muscles in and around the foot can help ease pain, aid in recovery, and prevent future problems. These exercises, recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists, are a great place to start. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Mix Up Your Shoes

Think of it like cross-training for your feet. Cross-training means mixing up the types of exercise you do to avoid overtraining and muscle imbalances. Cross-training for your feet means mixing up the kinds of shoes you wear. “There isn’t one perfect shoe,” says Dr. Walter. “Cross-training your feet makes them resilient and able to tolerate different types of shoes, even heels or going barefoot.”

If you’re always in a well-supported shoe, walk barefoot (in a safe environment) for short periods of time. Swap skinny high heels for a lower, chunky heel one day a week if heels are your typical work shoe. If you work from home and are always barefoot, slip on a pair of shoes from time to time. Always in flimsy shoes? Alternate with a more supportive style. “Flexibility in your footwear allows for more flexibility in your foot, so it can adapt to different positions, stability, and pressure, and be more resilient, especially if you forget your favorite pair while on vacation,” says Dr. Walter.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Flat Feet. (2023, August). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flatfeet/symptoms-causes/syc-20372604

  2. How your feet work — and three steps for keeping them healthy. (2009, April 1). Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Special-section-Feet-How-your-feet-work---and-three-steps-for-keeping-them-healthy

  3. What is the RICE method for injuries? WebMD. (2023). https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/rice-method-injuries

  4. Ten Tips to a Great Shoe Fit. (n.d.). Retrieved from Pedorthic Footcare Association. https://www.pedorthics.org/page/ten_tips

  5. Buldt, A.K., Menz, H.B. (2018). Incorrectly fitted footwear, foot pain and foot disorders: a systematic search and narrative review of the literature. J Foot Ankle Res doi:10.1186/s13047-018-0284-z

Table of Contents
What Is Foot Pain?Foot Pain SymptomsFoot Pain: A Hinge Health PerspectiveCauses of Foot PainHow to Prevent Foot PainWhen to See a DoctorTreatment for Foot PainPT Tip: Mix Up Your ShoesHow Hinge Health Can Help YouReferences