Burning feet

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsBurning feet

Everyone experiences the sensation of burning feet, also called pins and needle, at some point in their lifetime. The condition most often occurs after sitting cross-legged for too long or resting in another position that puts pressure on a nerve and restricts the blood flow to it. For most, the sensation goes away within a few minutes of changing positions and is promptly forgotten about. Others, however, experience the condition at random times for unknown reasons. Some are forced to deal with this uncomfortable sensation often or for prolonged periods of time. For these people the cause is something other than sitting the wrong way and may indicate more serious medical conditions.

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Definition & Facts

Rated as anything from a minor annoyance to a serious life disruption, the condition known as burning feet occurs when someone experiences the sensation of uncomfortably hot feet. Also described as feeling "pins and needles" in the foot, the condition is technically referred to as paresthesia.

For some, the sensation is mild and simply serves as a temporary annoyance. Others experience extreme discomfort severe enough to interfere with sleep and other daily activities. The condition is a treatable one and a trip to the doctor yields relief for many, but not everyone with the condition requires medical intervention.

The need for treatment varies depending on the severity and duration of attacks. The condition can affect anyone, but treatment is most often sought by patients 50 or older and is extremely common in diabetics.

Causes

Troublesome cases of burning feet are often caused by some type of nerve damage. Those who suffer short, infrequent attacks likely experience them as a result of athlete's foot, foot fatigue, fluid retention or a vitamin B12 or Vitamin B6 deficiency.

More chronic cases, however, often indicate nerve damage and may be caused by diabetes, alcohol abuse, HIV, Lyme disease or kidney disease. Low levels of thyroid hormone, obesity and gout can also cause burning feet as can damage to the nerves caused by a traumatic injury. In some instances, the nerve damage doesn't become bothersome or even apparent until several years after the injury has healed.

Because there are so many potential causes, diagnosing burning feet may require a complete physical to check for underlying problems as well as a nerve conduction test, nerve biopsy or elctromyography (muscle function testing). Getting a diagnosis sometimes involves referral to a neurologist, dermatologist, allergist or endocrinologist to check for and rule out some of burning feet's potential causes.

When to see a doctor

For some patients, relief from burning feet is as simple as bathing the feet in cool water and elevating them when sitting down. Wearing more comfortable shoes may also help. If these remedies don't resolve the problem, it's time to see the doctor.

If the burning sensation comes on suddenly without any previous occurrence, seek emergency medical treatment. Emergency treatment should also be sought for open wounds of the foot. Schedule a doctor's visit if the burning sensation reoccurs frequently over a period of several weeks, the burning gets more intense, the sensation starts moving up the legs or the toes and feet become numb.

These symptoms are not considered to be a medical emergency but still warrant a thorough and timely medical investigation. Patients should also consult with a physician if, after a long day on their feet, the burning sensation begins immediately upon removal of their shoes.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment for burning feet focuses on managing the symptoms and providing relief. This is often done using pain medications to reduce or eliminate the burning sensation. The most commonly prescribed of these medications are:

Cooling foot creams are also used to treat minor cases of burning feet as needed and obese patients will likely be encouraged to strive for a healthy weight. Fungal medication may also be prescribed if a foot fungus is thought to be the cause of the problem and medications may also be given to control underlying problems, such as diabetes or thyroid issues.

Some patients find relief with custom orthotics that can be placed inside shoes to provide better foot support. In extreme cases, nerve surgery may be necessary to repair damaged nerves or damaged muscles that are putting pressure on the nerves. Massage and acupuncture have also shown promise as possible treatment methods.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Burning feet can sometimes be prevented by wearing proper footwear that provides adequate support, especially during long periods of standing or walking. After such rigorous activities, it is important to properly elevate the feet to provide relief from fatigue.

Stretch and ice them as well to prevent swelling or stiffness. Cotton socks decrease foot sweating and help prevent foot fungus and other conditions that can cause burning feet. Taking a daily vitamin that contains B vitamins also helps prevent burning feet as does decreasing alcohol and narcotic consumption.

Those whose job requires long periods of standing should consider consulting a podiatrist as a preventive measure to maintain foot health and prevent nerve damage before it starts whenever possible. Routine medical examinations may also prevent burning feet as checkups may reveal diabetes, low thyroid hormone levels and other problems before they are able to cause foot problems.

It is important to understand that the sensation of burning feet is not normal, nor is it something that simply has to be lived with. Although the condition frequently affects those over 50, it is not a normal part of the aging process and is something that should not be taken lightly.

Though the issue may be a minor one, burning sensations in the feet always points to some type of medical problem that should be treated. Curing the problem could be as simple as a new pair of sneakers, but the issue is one that should never be overlooked since it can be indicative of more serious health issues that require treatment and management.

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