Most would agree that walking is the safest, easiest form of exercise, yet – each year – thousands of walkers are hobbled as a result of a walking-induced pain or a nagging old exercise injury that walking has aggravated.
Here are some of the most common walking pains.
The plantar fascia is the band of tissue that runs from your heel bone to the ball of your foot. When this dual-purpose shock absorber and arch support is strained, small tears develop and the tissue stiffens as a protective response, causing foot pain. You know you have plantar fasciitis if you feel pain in your heel or arch first thing in the morning, because the fascia stiffens during the night. If the problem is left untreated, it can cause a build-up of calcium, which may create a painful, bony growth around the heel known as a heel spur.
Toe pain can develop when the corners or sides of your toenails grow sideways rather than forward, putting pressure on surrounding soft tissues and even growing into the skin. You may be more likely to develop ingrown toenails if your shoes are too short or too tight, which causes repeated trauma to the toe as you walk. If the excess pressure goes on too long, such as during a long hike or charity walk, bleeding could occur under the nail and your toenail might eventually fall off.
A bunion develops when the bones in the joint on the outer side of the big or little toe become misaligned, forming a painful swelling. Walkers with flat feet, low arches, or arthritis may be more apt to develop bunions.
The Achilles tendon, which connects your calf muscle to your heel, can be irritated by walking too much, especially if you don't build up to it. Repeated flexing of the foot when walking up and down steep hills or on uneven terrain can also strain the tendon, triggering lower leg pain.
If tissue surrounding a nerve near the base of the toes thickens, it can cause tingling, numbness, or pain that radiates to surrounding areas. It may feel as though you're treading on a marble. This condition, known as Morton's neuroma, frequently develops between the base of the third and fourth toes. It's up to 10 times more common in women than men, possibly because women's feet are structured differently and because they tend to wear narrow, high shoes or very flat ones.
Your shins have to bear up to 6 times your weight while you exercise, so foot-pounding activities like walking and running can cause problems for the muscles and surrounding tissues and create inflammation. The strain and leg pain results from strong calves pulling repeatedly on weaker muscles near the shin. Spending too many hours walking on concrete can also lead to this sort of inflammation. Severe or pinpointed pain in the shin could also be a stress fracture of the tibia.
If you feel tenderness or pain when you press on a specific spot on your foot or lower leg, you may have a stress fracture—a tiny crack in a bone. Most common in the lower leg, they tend to occur when your leg muscles become overloaded from repetitive stress because the shock is absorbed by the bone, rather than the muscle. This can happen if you ignore a shin splint, for instance, because the continued strain on muscles and tissues will eventually shift to the bone. Walking is more likely to lead to a stress fracture if you walk for too long without building up to it, especially if you have high arches or rigid, flat feet. Women may be more vulnerable because their lower muscle mass and bone density don't always act as adequate shock absorbers.