Walking without pain

Date Published: 
August 22, 2014

It’s no secret that walking is considered one of the safest forms of exercise for young and old alike. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to become a regular walker, and there is always somewhere to walk, whether you live in a city, a small town or on a farm. However, no sport is without risks, and walking is no exception.

Every year, more than a quarter of a million people seek medical treatment because of a problem that resulted from walking. It’s no surprise, because your foot accounts for more than 25 percent of the bones in your body, before you even consider the joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons that reside there, too.

Your foot has to bear your total body weight with every step you take, and it’s constantly called on to provide balance, mobility and stability. It’s that daily pounding that puts feet at risk, and the 25,000 injuries reported every day in the U.S. mean it’s important to understand a proper approach to walking, a few of the common risks and what you can do about them.

The easiest problem to correct is foot pain that comes from wearing improper shoes. Proper walking shoes are the only equipment you need for this sport, and they’re important. Improperly fitting shoes can cause injury.

I recommend avoiding online ordering for that first pair of walking shoes. Go to a specialty store that can properly fit you and can figure out how your foot falls. It’s important to know whether your foot falls to the inside, outside or stays in a neutral position when you are walking to determine the proper type of shoe.

When you go to try on those shoes, wear the same type of sock you plan to wear when you walk. Take the time to put both shoes on and walk around in them. If your shoe doesn’t feel comfortable and if you feel your heel shifting, those are not the right shoes. Part of any sport is the right preparation, and you’re on the right track with properly fitted shoes.

The next step is to introduce a walking routine gradually. Too much, too soon is a problem in any sport, and walking is no exception. Proper preparation includes stretching and a few simple exercises to warm up your muscles and joints. Simple exercises like leg swings, ankle circles and arm circles as part of a warm-up routine will work the right muscles and get your blood flowing without being too taxing.

You can always talk to a physical therapist with specialized sports training to get advice on a warm-up that will work for you and your specific needs.

There are a number of other problems that can cause foot pain, and you can become more aware of them when you are walking. One of them is an irritated Achilles tendinitis. If you experience pain in the back of your heel and in your lower calf, this could be the problem.

The Achilles tendon connects your heel to your calf muscle. It can become irritated if you don’t engage in proper warm-ups before walking, and it can also be a problem if you overdo it and walk too much. It can also occur from walking on uneven surfaces or from walking up and down steep hills.

If you are feeling the pain I described, talk to a doctor. If it’s a mild case, you will likely be advised to reduce your walking or even stop walking for a while and switch to swimming or another outlet that won’t make the pain worse. If it’s a severe situation, you will probably be advised to stop walking and try icing for about 20 minutes three or four times a day for a longer period of time, until you’ve healed.

Another problem walkers sometimes experience is plantar fasciitis. If the bottom of your foot or your heel feels very tender and it’s particularly noticeable first thing in the morning, you want to pay attention.

There’s a band of tissue that stretches from the ball of your foot to your heel bone, and that’s the plantar fascia. It serves as both an arch support and a shock absorber. When it is strained, tears can occur, and that makes the tissue stiffen as a natural response to protecting itself. What you will feel is pain.

Overdoing it when walking on pavement, abruptly changing your normal walking routine or even walking on concrete for long distances can cause the problem. If you have high arches, you are particularly at risk.

A medical professional will diagnose your problem and will probably send you to a physical therapist, who will give you a stretching routine and some specific exercises to help you heal and alleviate your pain. You may also be told to try an orthotic insert to help absorb some of the impact of walking.

Heard of shin splints? Walkers who ignore advice on walking too much too soon or ramping up speed too soon are risking shin splints. If you are experiencing soreness and stiffness in your shins, there’s a good chance that you have a problem with shin splints.

This overuse injury can cause severe pain. Don’t take it lightly and don’t guess if you are experiencing shin pain. The pain could also be the result of a stress fracture. Only a medical professional can properly evaluate you.

If it’s shin splints, you will probably be told to cut back on walking for a number of weeks to give your body a chance to heal. You may also be told to use cold packs to reduce the swelling and pain, and you may need to take anti-inflammatory medication. Some exercises may also be given to you to strengthen your muscles to help prevent it from happening in the future.

These are just a few of the types of problems involving your feet that could become a problem for you.

You’ve been reading my articles in Coastal Point long enough to know that I am a prevention advocate. I don’t believe in ignoring pain. When you are experiencing pain in a foot or both feet, that’s your body telling you there’s a problem. See a doctor and find out what’s going on.

The important thing to remember is that, when you decide to walk, you are making an important choice in favor of your health. Hippocrates once said, “Walking is a man’s best medicine.” Whether man or woman, it can be your path to a healthier tomorrow.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.