You may or may not have heard of the condition metatarsalgia, but if you’ve ever experienced unexplained foot pain that affects the ball of your foot, it may be a condition more known to you than initially perceived. Metatarsalgia is a common foot condition characterized by painful and inflamed feet, predominantly affecting the metatarsophalangeal joints - the portion of the foot between your arches and toes, commonly referred as the ‘balls’ of your feet.
In this article, we’re going to explain everything you need to know about metatarsalgia and how to treat it. Let’s get started!
What is metatarsalgia?
Metatarsalgia, also known as metatarsal pain, is a common foot ailment that affects an estimated 35 percent of the adult population over 65. It is an overuse injury characterized by pain and inflammation across the bottom of the feet that can make it difficult to walk and function normally.
The condition may be fleeting or may last for several months. Luckily, it’s not a serious condition, and can go away quickly with proper treatment and care, which we will come to.
What is metatarsal foot pain?
If you are wondering whether metatarsalgia is the condition you are experiencing, it can be helpful to understand what metatarsal foot pain feels like, so you can discount other more serious conditions.
Metatarsal foot pain may be:
- A sharp or dull pain in the ball of your foot
- Similar to a burning sensation
- Worsened while walking or running
- Paresthesia - tingling or numb toes
If that sounds like something you are experiencing, keep reading to learn about what causes metatarsalgia and some effective treatments to alleviate metatarsal pain.
What causes metatarsalgia?
As mentioned, this is often an overuse injury. Thus, it is most common amongst athletes and people who spend more time than average on their feet - for example servers, builders, hospital workers or bartenders.
The repeated stress of your feet hitting the hard surface of the floor is the most common reason for this condition, and the harder the impact, the worse the condition presents. That is why athletes involved in sports that require jumping are more prone to metatarsalgia - like basketball, running, or lacrosse.
However, there are other factors that may increase your risk of developing this condition, such as:
Foot deformities - As examined in a 2014 study published in the Medical Clinics of North America, bunions, hammertoe, mallet toes and other common foot deformities increase your risk of developing metatarsalgia. This is because these conditions affect your gait, and can put undue pressure on certain bones, leading to metatarsal abnormality and metatarsalgia.
Being overweight or obese - As summarized in a 2015 randomized controlled trial that examined the role of overweight and obesity in foot conditions, “even a modest weight loss significantly reduced the dynamic plantar loading in obese adults”. The connection is clear: excess weight puts more pressure on your feet, specifically the metatarsal area.
Improper footwear - According to a survey, 90 percent of American women are wearing shoes that don’t fit. Another survey found this figure to be 80 percent of American men. The result of wearing improper footwear is foot pain, deformities, and conditions like metatarsalgia. Improper footwear may be wearing shoes that are too small, too loose, lacking arch support, lacking shock absorption, narrow or pointed shoes that restrict the toes, or heels.
- Natural foot shape - There are also risk factors for metatarsalgia that may be out of your control, like your natural foot shape. According to WebMD, this may include prominent metatarsal heads, tight toe extensors, weak toe flexors, a hypermobile first metatarsal bone, or a short metatarsal bone.
But as with most medical conditions, there are always steps you can take (excuse the pun!) to treat the condition, and feel like yourself again.
How to immediately treat metatarsal pain
Metatarsal pain is the fundamental symptom of metatarsalgia, and so finding an immediate solution to alleviate this may be your main concern. Here are some top recommendations:
- Apply ice - Icing the ball of your foot can help to reduce the inflammation causing the pain. Do this for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
- Immobilization - Unfortunately, if your metatarsal pain is severe, you may have to take a few days off from your regular schedule. Limiting the use of the foot can allow it to heal without worsening the condition and increasing your risk of bone and joint injury like stress fractures.
Compression - If the foot is swollen after icing, wrap the metatarsal area, compressing it slightly. This will encourage the swelling to decrease.
- Medication - In severe cases, you may be prescribed medication like oral steroids from your physician, or can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) to help treat the pain.
How to treat metatarsalgia and prevent it from returning
Treating only the symptom of metatarsalgia, metatarsal pain, is not a long-term solution. If you want to prevent the condition from returning, you need to implement a few key changes.
1. Wear proper fitting shoes
Improper footwear will eventually cause you problems, whether that presents as metatarsalgia or another foot condition. Due to this, it’s widely accepted that wearing proper fitting shoes is the most effective way to treat metatarsalgia.
2. Adding insoles to your shoes
Custom insoles add arch support to your shoes. This support is crucial because it offloads and distributes peak pressure across the entire bottom surface of the foot, relieving the ball of the foot.
3. Stretching exercises
Stretching your feet regularly will help to alleviate metatarsalgia. A study that monitored the results of a 6-week stretching program found that it increased the dynamic passive length and properties of the calf muscle-tendon, which as summarized by Physiopedia, is key for metatarsalgia recovery.
An example of a stretching exercise includes the achilles ligament stretch.
4. Strengthening exercises
Strengthening exercises for the foot and ankle can help to prevent metatarsalgia, specifically the muscles on the bottom of your foot that support the metatarsals. Strengthening exercises can help to encourage normal foot biomechanics and relieve the pressure from the ball of the foot.
An example of a strengthening exercise includes towel toe curls.
We hope this gives you insight into metatarsalgia and how you can alleviate metatarsal pain and gain mobility back in your foot so you are free to move!