Bursitis foot—it’s painful, frustrating, and all too common.1
If you’re experiencing foot pain, it may very well be caused by bursitis. It can happen to anyone—from athletes to cashiers. Or maybe it’s simply due to the possibility that you’re wearing the wrong pair of shoes. Luckily, typical cases of bursitis are easy to treat at home, as its remedies are accessible and numerous.
Let’s step into the science behind bursitis, what causes it, how to alleviate symptoms, and how you can squash pesky foot pain before it starts.
What is Bursitis?
A bursa (plural, bursae) is a fluid-filled sac that provides cushioning between joint bones and the surrounding musculature. There are around 150 bursae distributed throughout the human body. Pretty much everywhere your body bends, it’s possible to find a bursa.2
Bursitis happens when a bursa, or multiple bursae, becomes inflamed. The resulting pain and swelling can cause discomfort and mobility problems. That said, bursitis is typically a temporary condition, and will usually go away without professional medical intervention.3
It is possible—though rare—for bursitis to turn severe. Depending upon symptoms and causes, treatment from a professional may be required.
Causes of Bursitis
Bursitis has a number of causes, both internal and external.4 It can be brought on by anything from ill-fitting apparel to an unruly infection. Here are a few of its possible origins:
- Exterior pressure – Ill-fitting or unbroken shoes are one of the main causes of bursitis of the foot. The exterior pressure of the footwear can put stress on the bursae in the heel, leading to inflammation.
- Overexertion – Over-flexing, intense movement, or too much impact on the joint can cause bursitis. Overexertion is typically the result of athletics, exercise, or repetitive activities.
- An underlying condition – Arthritis, gout, bone spurs, Haglund’s deformity, and other pre-existing foot conditions can often predicate or exacerbate bursitis. An injury elsewhere in the body that changes the way you walk, even slightly, can eventually result in inflamed bursae too.2
- Infection – Bursa inflammation can sometimes (though rarely) be caused by an infection. Bacteria can sometimes find their way into the body through scratches and scrapes and in some cases, wind up targeting the bursae.2
It’s a good idea to practice preventative self-care for the feet and ankles. Many of the causes listed above can be avoided altogether. Regular stretching, careful attention to aches, pains, and wounds, and mindful wardrobe choices will all make a difference. Refer to the section below on the prevention of bursitis for more in-depth information.
Symptoms of Bursitis
Wondering if you may be suffering from bursitis of the foot? The physical symptoms of bursitis vary on a case-to-case basis, but there are a few commonly cited signs:3
- Pain in and around the affected joint or soft tissue. For example: If you are experiencing pain on top of your foot, you might have bursitis on one of the joints where your metatarsals meet your toes.
- Tender skin that appears red and swollen. This is especially applicable to bursitis of the foot, where the affected bursae are situated just under the skin.
- Difficulty moving the affected joint or limited range of movement.
- Pain and difficulty while walking, jogging, or running. In some cases, this pain may increase in intensity when the toes are flexed.4
- Joint swelling
Take careful stock of the physical sensations and appearance of your feet and ankles. There are many other possible explanations for pain and lack of mobility in the foot, such as a fracture, corns and calluses, neuroma, or a simple muscle strain. Because the tendon is the affected part of bursitis, anywhere on the foot that has a tendon can have bursitis. Without you knowing, you might have intermetatarsal bursitis, Achilles tendon bursitis, or even heel bursitis.
Heel pain, in particular, can be caused by plantar fasciitis, another type of inflammation in the foot. It can be difficult to determine the cause of foot and heel pain on your own, so you may need to seek out professional assistance to be certain.
Do You Need a Diagnosis?
If the symptoms you’re experiencing are intense enough to interrupt the flow of your daily life, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor. Self-diagnosis and home treatment may work for most cases, but severe or chronic cases of bursitis typically require medical intervention.
A professional diagnosis of bursitis usually involves:4
- An evaluation where you will be asked about recent physical activity and habits
- A physical examination of the painful area
- A range of motion evaluation
- In some cases, investigation through medical technology, such as Xray, ultrasound or MRI
Since the physiology of the foot is extremely complex, a podiatrist, a medical doctor who specializes in the feet and ankles, will be best equipped to diagnose and treat bursitis. If you visit a minute clinic or a general practitioner, it’s possible that you may be referred to a podiatrist.
Treatment of Bursitis
Mild bursitis typically resolves on its own, as long as the affected joint is given the time to rest and heal. Here are some of the at-home therapies a doctor might recommend:
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen can be used to reduce pain and swelling.
- Resting the joint and avoiding further strain could help to expedite the healing process.
- If movement can’t be avoided, orthotic shoes or socks can help relieve pressure.
More serious cases of bursitis must be treated by a doctor and could involve more invasive procedures. Septic bursitis (bursitis caused by an infection) in particular should be assessed and treated by a professional. In which case:
- Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the infection.
- The practitioner may use a needle to aspirate infected fluid from the bursa.
- In the most serious cases, surgery to remove the infection (a bursectomy and or an incision and drainage) may be needed.
If you’re at all unsure about the severity of your foot pain, don’t hesitate to get a professional opinion. It’s far better to be told there’s nothing to worry about than to ignore an infection or serious affliction.
To RICE or Not to RICE
If you’re familiar with sports injuries, you may have noticed a common at-home treatment missing from our list above.
The RICE method has been widely practiced for decades as a way to treat:
- Strained muscles
- Sprained joints and ligaments
- Other mild injuries to the musculoskeletal system
RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
However, the doctor who created this treatment method has since come out against it. Dr. Gabe Mirkin says on his blog, “Coaches have used my RICE guideline for decades, but now it appears that both ice and complete rest may delay healing, instead of helping.”5
Dr. Mirkin goes on to discuss how inflammation is the body’s immune response to injury, and a certain amount of it is biologically necessary for healing. He recommends applying ice sparingly, only for the purpose of pain relief.
Mirkin also recommends gentle joint exercise, as long as the movement doesn’t cause any added pain or discomfort.
Prevention of Bursitis
With a bit of forethought, it’s usually possible to prevent bursitis from occurring. There are a few different ways to go about this:3
- Stretch – Always stretch and warm up your body before exercise. Those with physically demanding jobs should stretch before work too. Stretching the backs of your ankles by dropping your heels below the edge of a stair or curb is a good way to prevent bursitis (of the” heel” specifically, not the entire foot )foot.
- Pay attention to your body’s signals – Simply put, if something is causing you pain, don’t push through it. Stop the activity and analyze where the pain is coming from. Maintaining proper posture throughout the day could also be a helpful step in preventing bursitis. The saying, “no pain, no gain” does not apply here. Pushing through the last few repetitions of a set, for example, when lifting weights, is not the same as pushing through joint pain.
- Protect vulnerable areas – Trade in uncomfortable shoes for shoes for shoes with arch support specially designed to support foot health. Keep an eye on wear and tear, and replace shoes or insoles when they start to feel or look unbalanced.
- Also, wear supportive slippers and avoid being barefoot for long periods of standing and walking.
Bursitis Foot Prognosis
While foot pain is a fairly common ailment, it’s not something that you should ignore.
On foot health, the Canadian Podiatric Medical Association says, “the foot acts as an amazingly versatile and complex set of shock absorbers that protect the body with every step.”6 Your feet and ankles are built to move, and if something is causing pain that prevents them from moving, it’s always best to get to the bottom of it.
In general, bursitis is a mild and temporary affliction. If you’re concerned you may be suffering from bursitis, there’s no need to panic. The best plan is to see a doctor for a diagnosis and, in the meantime, focus on reducing strain.
How Orthotics Can Help
Supportive shoes and insoles are an ideal way to support foot health on a daily basis. There are even custom molded orthotics often prescribed by doctors as a treatment and prevention method for joint pain.6
However, you don’t need to be suffering from symptoms to justify using insoles, and they certainly don’t require diagnosis and prescription. Orthotic shoes are fantastic daily wear for anyone who wants to make their feet more comfortable.
See the difference for yourself by picking up a pair of supportive walking shoes. With proper support of the feet and ankles, your general health is bound to improve—from the banishment of blisters and bursitis to superb spinal alignment. Aside from walking shoes, consider wearing compression socks to relieve some of the joint pain. Do compression socks work, and what are they? They are stretchable socks that are tight enough to compress your legs, feet and ankles. What this does is helps blood vessels work better.
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Dr. Jacqueline Sutera is a surgically trained doctor of podiatric medicine specializing in the prevention and treatment of foot pathology. She graduated from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Philosophy. She later attended the New York College of Podiatric Medicine where she earned the degree of Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM).
Dr. Sutera received her postgraduate residency training at the busy level-one trauma center at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, NY and Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. During her time there, she served as chief surgical resident and received and completed training in all aspects of podiatric medicine and surgery. Dr. Sutera is Board Certified in Foot Surgery and is a Fellow of the American College of Foot & Ankle Surgeons.
She is also a proud member and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association and the New York State Podiatric Medical Society. As one of NYC’s premier podiatric physicians, she is a caring, conscientious and extremely personable doctor who prides herself on being holistic in her approach to foot care. Where other doctors treat feet only locally, she has a unique gift of being able to link some foot problems to other underlying conditions taking place in the body.
- Hecht, Marjorie. “Foot Bursitis and You.” Healthline. Updated 11 July, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/bursitis-foot
- “Beating Bursitis.” News in Health. June 2019. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2019/06/beating-bursitis
- “What is bursitis?” Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/bursitis#:~:text=Bursitis%20is%20inflammation%20of%20a,elbows%2C%20hips%2C%20and%20knees
- “What is Bursitis?”. APMA. https://www.apma.org/bursitis
- “Why Ice Delays Recovery.” Dr. Mirkin. 16 September, 2015. https://www.drmirkin.com/fitness/why-ice-delays-recovery.html
- “Foot Health.” CPMA. https://www.podiatrycanada.org/foot-health/