The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Feet Hurt? Maybe It’s Your Back

Posted by on Thursday, September 13th, 2012

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It’s no surprise when a problem with our feet causes a problem somewhere else in our bodies. After all, we ask a lot of our poor, (relatively) little feet–they have to bear the weight of our entire bodies when we stand, and take on even more pressure with each walking or running step. When something goes wrong with our feet, we can throw our whole bodies out of line, causing all kinds of lower leg, knee, and back issues.

Therefore, it’s weirdly refreshing to find out that sometimes our feet aren’t the source of the problem–they’re not only not making some other part of your body hurt, they’re not even responsible for their own pain. Sometimes, in fact, the culprit is your back.

Yes, your back–just as foot problems can throw everything north of them into a tizzy, spinal issues can mess up the rest of your body, including your feet.

How do I know my foot pain is caused by my back, not my foot? Good question, with a relatively easy answer. If you feel foot numbness or pins and needle tingling, then that’s a good indicator that the problem is a nerve issue, and thus related to your spine, your nerve center. Weakness or an inability to fully lift your foot as you take a step is another indicator of a nerve problem, as is an inability to stand on your toes.

Now you can certainly have foot nerve issues that aren’t related to your back, but here’s a really good clue that the problem might be in your back: if you have foot pain, numbness, or tingling AND lower leg pain, then that’s a pretty good indication that the back is the problem. To really find out what’s going on, you should see your doctor or a chiropractor.

What kind of back problems cause foot pain? I’m glad you asked! Here are some of the usual suspects.

  • Sciatic nerve issues The sciatic nerve is actually composed of five nerves that are found at the base of the spine. The branches of the nerve travel all the way down each leg to each foot. When something in the lower back pinches or compresses one of those nerve endings, then the pain will travel downward so you feel it in both your leg and your foot.
  • Herniated disc Your spine is made up of a group of bones called the vertebrae and soft discs that provide cushioning between the bones. When something pushes the interior part of a disc through to the outside of the disc, that’s a herniated disc. If this happens in the lumbar, or lower back group of vertebrae and discs, pressure on the sciatic nerve can send pain to your feet and lower legs.
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis This is a condition where spinal nerves in the lower back are compressed, causing pain, weakness, numbness and tingling in the foot.
  • Spondylolisthesis (Having trouble with that word? There’s an app for that.) Sometimes a vertebrae can slip out of place and land over the next vertebrae. This can cause a pinched nerve that creates pain that will travel down the leg to the foot.

For these types of back problems, most orthopedists or chiropractors will try to solve the problem non-surgically (personally, I’ve had a lot of success with acupuncture when it comes to back problems). In some cases, though, surgery may be required.

The real key here is finding out what is causing your foot pain–your back or your foot. If you have foot pain, you can always start out by seeing a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) for an examination. If the back is the problem, your podiatrist may refer you to a specialist. A podiatrist may also be able to prescribe orthotics or braces that can help you deal with foot pain or weakness until your back issue is cleared up.

It’s easy to assume your foot is the problem when you have foot pain, but sometimes things are  little more complicated. If you have foot and lower leg pain, get it checked out–you may discover that your feet are not to blame!

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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.