By Dr. Mercola
Eight in 10 Americans experience some form of problem with their feet. One in 4 says they're unable to exercise due to foot pain.
One common cause of foot pain that can cause excruciating pain is an ingrown toenail — a problem that occurs when a sharp edge of the toenail begins to grow inward, cutting into the skin at the side of the toe.1,2
Just like many reading this, I know the pain of an ingrown nail first hand. For many years, I had sought to simply remove the offending section of nail. But that was only a temporary solution and also quite painful.
Although I am not a major fan of most surgical procedures, I opted for podiatric surgical treatment around 10 years ago and it indeed was a permanent fix. I have yet to have any other recurrences and I am very grateful it was an option.
The video above, narrated by a podiatrist, explains how an ingrown toenail typically develops, and how to best address it. While surgery is often the best solution for an ingrown toenail (as it was for me), there are a number of at-home remedies that can be helpful during the early stages.
Needless to say, the sooner you address it, the likelier you'll be successful in healing the area. As a general rule, if you have a condition that impairs blood circulation to your feet, such as diabetes, or if you have nerve damage in your leg or foot, avoid self-treating and seek help from a podiatrist to avoid complications.
What Causes Ingrown Toenails?
Ingrown toenails are prevalent among those who wear closed-toe shoes for long periods of time. Pressure on the toes and nails from poor-fitting shoes combined with the moisture from sweat is a recipe for toenail trouble.
Perhaps the No. 1 cause of ingrown toenails though is improper trimming. When cutting your nails, avoid angling or rounding off the nail edge. Instead, make sure you cut them straight across. Also avoid cutting them too short. Other common causes of ingrown toenails include:3
- Fungal or bacterial infection
- Genetic conditions
- Abnormally shaped nail beds
- Toenail injury (from dropping something on your toe, or stubbing it on a piece of furniture or while playing soccer, for example)
In the early stages, you'll typically notice redness around the affected toenail along with pain when you wear shoes that press on the area. As time goes on, the pain will worsen as the inflammation progresses. Eventually, the area may bleed and/or pus may begin to seep. In serious cases, you may develop a fever.
Most of the home remedies involve soaking your feet on a regular basis to soften the area and promote healing. A number of all-natural remedies can also be topically applied to address the infection.
Foot Soak Remedies
As a foot soak, you can use any of the following, mixed with water. Soak your feet for about 15 to 20 minutes, anywhere from four times a week to twice daily, and be sure to thoroughly dry your feet afterward:4
- Mild soap
- Epsom salt (use about 1 tablespoon for a small tub of warm water)
- Hydrogen peroxide (use about one-half cup of hydrogen peroxide for a small tub of warm water)
- Apple cider vinegar (50-50 mix of vinegar and water)
For topical application, the following items can be helpful to address infection and pain:
- Vicks VapoRub: apply directly to the affected area to relieve pain and speed healing
- White Flower oil: made from several herbs, this oil has analgesic properties and is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Apply a few drops to the affected area
- Oregano essential oil: its antibacterial and antiseptic activity makes it a helpful pain reliever. However, it's a strong skin irritant, so be sure to dilute it with a carrier oil or plain olive oil before applying it to the affected area
- Lemon: cut a thin slice of lemon and secure it around the affected toe with a bandage. Leave overnight to speed healing
- Turmeric paste: To make the paste, mix one-half teaspoon of turmeric powder with a few drops of mustard oil. Apply the paste on the affected area and cover with a bandage. Repeat two or three times a day for several days
Another painful but helpful part of home care is to separate and elevate the nail edge from the nail bed. To do this, after soaking your feet, carefully lift the corner of the nail that's growing inward using blunt tweezers and place a tiny piece of rolled gauze between the nail and the skin.5 Be sure to change the gauze every day. It may take up to two weeks for the nail to sufficiently grow out so it doesn't dig into the nail bed anymore.
How to Prevent Ingrown Toenails
Ingrown toenails are preventable by making sure you cut your toenails correctly. You want to make sure you cut them straight across. Avoid angling the nail at the edges. Also avoid cutting them too short. Proper trimming helps prevent the nail from curving and growing into the tissue of your toe on one or both sides, which can cause pain and infection.
Excessive pressure from tight shoes can also contribute to ingrown toenails, so avoid tight fitting shoes. Also opt for high-quality cotton socks when wearing closed shoes to prevent excess moisture formation. If you develop an ingrown toenail, consider wearing sandals until the condition has resolved.
Surgery Is Often Your Best Bet
In the early stages, you may be able to free the ingrown toenail from the skin by soaking your foot in warm, soapy water. This can help prevent it from getting ingrown in the first place. Avoid trying to cut out the nail yourself though, as this usually only worsens the problem.
However, if the home remedy route doesn't fix the problem within a few days or a couple of weeks, or if the area develops a serious-looking infection, your best option is to see a good podiatrist who can surgically address it. It's one of the very few occasions when surgery is actually advisable.
The podiatrist will numb your toe, and then remove the border of the nail to allow the tissue to heal. They also typically paint phenol to the base of the surgically extracted nail. While the phenol is clearly toxic, the benefit outweighs the risk as it prevents that section of nail from ever regrowing again. The entire procedure can in some cases be done in as little as 15 minutes, and relief and recuperation is typically swift.
Some Foot Problems May Be an Indication of More Serious Health Issues
Besides ingrown toenails, there's a wide variety of problems that can affect your feet. Interestingly enough, some foot problems may also be an indication of other health issues that may warrant medical investigation. This includes:6
• Muscle cramps in your feet and/or legs: if you wear high heels, muscle cramps may be related to your choice of footwear. If that's the case, the remedy is to switch over to more comfortable shoes.
However, muscle cramps can also be a signal of certain nutrient deficiencies, most notably dehydration (either from lack of water consumption or a side effect of diuretic medication) and/or a lack of magnesium. It could also be related to an imbalance in the ratio of sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
• Gout: this inflammatory condition typically affects your big toes, causing either one or both toes to swell and turn red and painful. The inflammation is caused by excess uric acid collecting in your joints. To reduce inflammation, addressing your diet is your No. 1 priority. This is especially true with gout. Meats and purine-rich foods can raise uric acid, but one of the most potent uric acid promoters is fructose, as uric acid is a byproduct of fructose metabolism.
In fact, fructose typically generates uric acid within minutes of ingestion. To normalize your uric acid levels, completely eliminate fructose until your uric acid level is within the ideal range of 3 to 5.5 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). Also limit your beer consumption, as this too is a powerful uric acid trigger. For more in-depth recommendations, please see my previous article on gout.
• Cold feet: can be an indication of problems such as poor circulation, diabetes, hypothyroidism and/or anemia.
• Swollen feet: can be an indication of a wide range of health problems, such as poor circulation related to heart failure, kidney or liver problems, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or a blood clot, just to name a few. If the swelling is accompanied by warmth and redness, you may have an infection.
Bruising and swelling may indicate a sprain or fracture. Barring a more serious problem, you can typically alleviate swelling by raising your feet up, exercising, normalizing your weight, avoiding excessively tight clothing and cutting down on your processed salt intake.
• Discolored toenails: while nail polish can discolor your toenails, if you don't typically wear polish then yellow toenails may suggest you have a systemic problem. Yellowing of toenails has been linked to conditions such as tuberculosis (TB), jaundice caused by a liver problem, thyroid gland inflammation, sinusitis and bronchiectasis (a lung condition).
Changes in nail texture can also be an indication of a more deep-seated problem. As a general rule, unless the discoloration or texture variation can be linked to the use of cosmetics, it would be wise to have it checked out by a medical professional.