By Rehan Iqbal
Everyone is born with flat feet, which simply means the bottoms of the feet would push into the floor if they were to stand up. By the age of 6, most children develop arches that rise along the inside edge of both feet. Those arches promote an even distribution of body weight. They help the feet stand up and hold the body stable even while walking, running, jumping, and bending.
Arched feet are better able to absorb shock when the feet strike against the ground as well. When children never develop arches on one or both feet, it can make moving more difficult, but generally not impossible. Problems may also develop when the arches drop in youth or adulthood.
Some people live their entire lives with flat feet and never experience pain or difficult movement. Others aren’t so lucky. As a result, the answer to whether flat feet are a problem comes down to, “it depends.”
Understanding Flat Feet
If you stand up and the bottoms of your feet rest fully on the ground with no rise at any point, you have flat feet. It is possible to have one arched and one flat foot, especially if your arch dropped in one foot after childhood. In some cases, you may see a slight arch when your foot is raised from the ground.
There are three types of flat feet. These categories were established to differentiate between potential causes of flat feet and pinpoint the risks for pain and dysfunction as a result of the condition. Let’s take a quick look at these types of flat feet so you can determine where your feet might fit. This information may help you determine whether you need to seek medical treatment or continue to manage your flat feet on your own.
Vertical talus is sometimes the diagnosis when babies are born with one or two flat feet. It’s often first noted by the upward curve of the toes and fronts of the feet. The bottoms of the feet are flat and often feel stiff. In some cases, the feet look much like the curved bottoms of a rocking chair.
This condition won’t stop a child from walking, but it can become more and more painful with time. Most doctors will act quickly to treat the foot non-surgically. Surgery is an option if the foot isn’t easily corrected by non-invasive treatment strategies.
Flexible Flat Feet
Most people have flexible flat feet, and many never experience pain or need treatment. The feet appear to have at least a slight arch when at rest or when you stand up on your toes. That arch collapses to a flat foot when you stand up. This is the most common and least problematic type of flat feet.
Rigid Flat Feet
Rigid flat feet have no arches, whether at rest or in a standing position. You may also see this condition referred to as adult-onset flat feet or fallen arches. That’s due to the large number of people who develop arches in childhood but experience those arches falling or sinking to the ground later in life.
That can happen for a variety of reasons, including broken bones, nerve issues, or the development of rheumatoid arthritis. You’re also at heightened risk if you’re obese or have diabetes. Some pregnant women experience fallen arches due to the added body weight bearing down on the feet.
This type of flat foot is more likely to cause pain, especially if allowed to progress throughout adulthood. You may want to talk to your doctor about non-invasive treatment options before you start to experience pain.
Potential Problems that Come from Flat Feet
Pain is the leading problem for people with flat feet. The most common location for pain is along the inside of the foot where the arch is missing and/or in the heel. Some people may also experience pain in their lower back because the back works much harder than normal to keep the body erect and stable while in motion. With time, those overworked back muscles start to hurt.
Flat feet can also cause cramps that feel like painful spasms throughout the feet. You may also notice that your feet and legs get tired much faster than most people with arched feet. All of these symptoms are from strain on surrounding muscles, joints, and ligaments to keep your body safely in motion.
Extreme pain can interfere with daily life and degrade your overall quality of life. When that pain is combined with leg fatigue, cramping, and balance issues, you may struggle with mobility even more. The longer you go without treatment, the more painful the condition may become.
Is it Possible to Treat or Cure Flat Feet?
There are treatments for flat feet. Many people never see a doctor because they experience no discomfort. Others wait until the pain becomes unbearable to seek medical attention. It’s best to see a doctor as soon as you start to experience any signs of trouble, including:
If you notice any other symptoms that are possibly due to your flat feet, it doesn’t hurt to see a doctor. Every person may respond differently to any medical condition.
Common Non-Surgical Flat Foot Treatments
Exercise Your Feet!
Whether you have flat feet or not, you probably neglect them and don't give them enough exercise. This is common!
Luckily exercising your feet is very easy and something that you can do while you're reading, watching television or otherwise relaxing. Here are a few good ideas that you can use to help strengthen your feet and avoid developing flat feet if you don't already have them.
Set up a foot toy box by your favorite chair! Keep these simple things close at hand to exercise your feet while you're relaxing. You'll need:
These items do not have to be exact. For example, instead of a foam roller, you could use a plastic soft drink bottle filled with water. Roll this under your foot for a gentle massage. If you're having problems with pain in the soles of your foot and in your arches, you can freeze the bottle and roll your foot over it. This will help to relieve pain.
You can also roll the tennis ball or the bumpy ball under your foot as a good massaging and stretching exercise.
Tip: There are therapeutic bumpy balls that are quite expensive available from doctors, physical therapists and in drugstores. A very inexpensive alternative is a bumpy dog toy or bumpy toy ball. Look at dollar stores, pet shops and toy stores for bumpy dog toys and/or balls that will work just fine for rolling under your foot.
You can use your hand towel to exercise your toes. Just spread it out on the floor in front of you and then gradually pull it towards you into a pile using only your toes. Hold the rest of your foot still. When you have the towel scrunched up in a pile in front of you, try picking it up with your toes. Use your toes and feet to smooth it out on the floor again.
Pour out a half a cup of pebbles, marbles or similar items on the floor in front of you and then pick them up with your toes and put them back in the cup. This will strengthen your toes and help them to stay flexible as well as strengthening your arches. One of the complications of flat footedness is the development of bunions. Exercising your toes also helps prevent bunions.
Spread Your Toes!
When you go to bed at night give your feet a good massage with lotion and pay special attention to the arches and to the toes. Put your fingers between your toes and spread them and hold them that way for a few moments. This can really help to stretch the soles of your feet and keep your arches flexible.
Incorporate Foot Exercise Into Your Day
When you are standing in line or otherwise on your feet with nothing to do, try a few heel raises. Just raise yourself up onto the balls of your feet, hold for a count of ten and then slowly lower yourself again. Do ten repetitions whenever you think of it throughout the day. This helps stretch and strengthen your arches.
Whenever you need to walk upstairs, if you have the time, take a couple of minutes to do some stair raises. Be sure to hold onto the stair railing so you don't fall over backwards!
Just put the balls of your feet at the edge of a step and let your heels sink down an inch or two. Rise up slowly until you are standing on tip toes on the edge of the step.
Lower yourself gradually until your heels are an inch or so below the step and then repeat. Do this 5 to 10 times a couple of times a day whenever you have the chance. This simple exercise is very beneficial to your arches, your ankles and your calves.
Surgery for Flat Feet
There are multiple surgeries that are commonly used to correct flat feet and relieve pain. This is typically the last treatment option explored because the surgery comes with some risk and requires downtime for recovery. If you’re experiencing significant pain that isn’t responding to other treatments or your mobility is limited due to flat feet, it is an option that could reduce your pain and improve your quality of life.
When to Seek Medical Attention for Flat Feet
You should see a doctor if you notice any of the symptoms of flat feet listed above. It’s best to start treatment as soon as you experience the first signs of discomfort, loss of balance, or other symptoms. No matter how subtle those signs are at first, it’s likely to get worse if you don’t treat your flat feet.
Many people experience no problems with their flat feet. If that’s you, then you don’t need to seek medical care. If you experience mild to modest pain or discomfort that is manageable, you may want to seek care to see if stretching and strengthening exercises can help.