Foot Health 101: Learn How to Treat Your Feet

If the shoe fits, wear it – and other tips for happy tootsies.

Woman legs on green grass

When people aren't feeling well, we wish them a speedy recovery – to see them "back on their feet" again soon. And yet, we're often unaware of the intricate pedals so central to our mobility until they give out on us. And then – it's as if someone snatched away the car keys or the plane just grounded.

Three-quarters of Americans will, at some point in their lives, endure foot pain, which is commonly brought on by ill-fitting shoes, weight gain or a spike in physical activity.

[Read: Crazy for Exercise: Are We Overdoing It?]

You can guard against hurt feet by wearing shoes that fit the occasion, experts say. In other words, yes, you can still glam out in your Jimmy Choos (if you can swing it ...) but, more to the point: Wear running shoes for running, spinning shoes for spinning and commute in something comfy.

Vary the shoes you wear and seek footwear that gives you arch support, shock absorption and cushioning, says Jacqueline Sutera, a podiatrist with practices in New York and New Jersey and an American Podiatric Medical Association spokeswoman. Her no-no's: "Anything too thin, too flat, too high, too hard, too stiff."

So, put on your Goldilocks hat the next time you go shoe shopping, and pick out a pair that feels just right. While you're at it, throw away your worn-out shoes, whose lack of support can set you up for a sprained ankle and other injuries. And please be careful with pedicures – steer clear of cuticle cutting and razors, which can lead to infection and permanent damage.

[Read: Pedicure or Pedicurse? Proceed With Caution.]

Meanwhile, learn how to recognize and treat some of the most common foot ailments. Among them:

1. Heel Pain: According to Sutera, heel pain typically results from plantar fasciitis – inflammation of a ligament at the bottom of the foot. It can result from weight gain, unsupported arches or overactivity from exercise. You'll detect it by pain after periods of rest, like when you first step out of bed in the morning, or after intense activity. And it hurts because you're essentially walking on an injury, Sutera explains. You can heal your heel with the following regimen: at night, alternate two or three 15-minute periods of icing with 15-minute periods of rest; when you wake up, extend your leg and use a towel or yoga strap to stretch your toes back toward you. Meanwhile, wear supportive shoes and take anti-inflammatory medicine if needed. If you don't feel better after three weeks, see a doctor, she says. Untreated, plantar fasciitis can give way to other problems like tendenitis, a tightening of the achilles which can rupture and land you in a cast.

[Read: Should You Try the Heel Hop Workout?]

2. Bunions: A dislocation of the joint in the big toe, bunions are genetic conditions that can worsen by wearing unsupportive shoes like pointy high heels or ballerina flats, Sutera says. Bunions can cause swelling, redness, pain and, if untreated, can develop into arthritis. You can manage a bunion by wearing wide shoes, she says, but the only fix is surgery.

3. Ingrown toenails: These can be inherited (the so-called "pincer nail" that curves inward), or they can be caused by tight shoes or pantyhose, but it's most often due to cutting too deeply into the corners of nails, says Hillary Brenner, a New York podiatrist who also speaks for the APMA. As a result, skin grows over the nail, leaving you vulnerable to a bacterial infection that can become very dangerous should the bacteria reach the bloodstream. You'll know it's a bacterial infection by signs of redness, heat and swelling. Also, it smells bad. (Gross-out alert) Bacteria actually eat your sweat and excrete fumes, Brenner says. If you notice any red streaking from the infection site, she advises seeing a podiatrist immediately.

Otherwise, treat the infection by soaking your feet in a lukewarm bath of Epsom salt for 15 to 20 minutes and apply moisturizing cream to soften the nail. Then, use sterile clippers to trim the nail, and apply Neosporin and a bandage to the wound, Brenner says. "It should be almost instantaneous relief."