Article at a glance
A podiatrist is both a physician and surgeon who’s specifically trained to prevent, diagnose, and treat conditions that involve the legs, ankles, and feet. They’re licensed in all 50 states and can be seen in various clinical settings, such as private medical practices, hospitals, and extended care facilities.
Podiatrists can treat both short-term and long-term disorders. These include (but are not limited to) fractures, calluses, bunions, gout, and diabetic foot ulcers.
To avoid irreversible damage, it’s important that you consult with a podiatrist if you see any changes in your feet, especially if you have diabetes. These changes can range from something as small as a cut to something as obvious as a loss of sensation.
Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the US. More than 34 million Americans (10.5%) have diabetes, and more than 24 million Americans 65 years old and over have prediabetes. It’s a long-term condition that can lead to many complications. Diabetic foot ulcers, one of the most common complications of uncontrolled diabetes, are also a common cause of osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), which can lead to amputation of the lower extremities. Due to the complex nature of diabetes, managing it requires the combined efforts of different medical professionals. These may include a primary care physician, an endocrinologist, a vascular surgeon, an infectious disease specialist, and a podiatrist.
What is a podiatrist?
A podiatrist, also known as a doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM), is a qualified physician and surgeon who prevents, diagnoses, and treats conditions of the lower extremities (e.g., feet, ankles, and other related structures of the leg). These conditions include diseases that may involve the bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and nerves. A DPM may work with other health professionals in treating patients with complex conditions that have a tendency to affect the feet, such as diabetes and heart disease. Podiatrists are licensed to practice all across the US and can be seen in a variety of healthcare settings, such as:
Private or group medical practices
Extended care facilities
Municipal health departments
Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs)
Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs)
Department of Veterans Affairs
US Public Health Service
Foot conditions treated by podiatrists
Podiatrists can provide medical, surgical, and non-surgical treatments involving foot conditions. Common problems include:
Foot pain can be caused by many things like sprains, fractures, or nerve damage. Foot pain commonly occurs in the ball and the heel of the foot. The ball of the foot is located on the bottom, behind the toes. Pain in this area may be due to nerve or joint damage. It can also signal a non-cancerous (benign) growth of tissue in the nerves called Morton’s neuroma. This usually occurs when bones rub against one another and impact the nerve between them, often leading to swelling and pain. Pain in the heel can be caused by another common condition called plantar fasciitis. This happens when the band of tissue connecting the heel to the toes becomes inflamed as a consequence of overuse. Plantar fasciitis is often seen in women, people who are overweight or who walk or stand a lot, or those who have flat feet and high arches.
Virtually any of the 26 bones of the foot can be fractured, but they usually heal on their own with some support and don’t require surgery or casting. The location of the fracture determines what kind of treatment is needed. Fractures of the toes usually heal with or without a cast, while fractures of the bones in the middle of the foot (metatarsal or sesamoid bones) may require surgery.
Bunions, corns, heel spurs
Bunions are protrusions of bone or tissue that often occur due to excessive stress on the affected joint. Corns are yellowish growths located on top of the toes that develop when the toe rubs against the shoe or another toe. Heel spurs are outgrowths of bone on the underside of the heel caused by excessive stress placed on feet from running, extra weight, or poorly fitting shoes.
Diabetic feet problems
One of the most common long-term (chronic) foot conditions a podiatrist treats is diabetic foot. People with diabetes are prone to problems of the feet because of nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy) and decreased blood flow. Nerve damage can cause tingling and pain; most importantly, it can cause you to lose feeling in your feet, making it hard for you to notice any injuries like cuts, sores, or blisters. These injuries can get infected over time without proper treatment. Moreover, decreased blood flow to your feet can slow down the healing of injuries and infections. An untreated infection can get so severe that it turns into a diabetic foot ulcer, which can become gangrenous and may eventually require amputation.
Other conditions that a podiatrist can treat include bacterial and fungal infections, tendinitis, shin splints, hammertoes, calluses, athlete’s foot, ingrown toenails, arthritis, sprains or strains, injuries or trauma, and gout.
Signs that you may need to see a podiatrist
Don’t hesitate to see a podiatrist if you notice any of the following changes in your feet:
Alteration in the color of your skin
Swelling in your foot or ankle
Numbness, tingling, burning, or pain
Open sores that are slow to heal
Thickened, yellow toenails
Bleeding corns, calluses, blisters, or bunions
Cracks on the skin
Extremely dry skin
Loss of sensation to touch or temperature
Change in shape
Loss of hair
You can avoid the serious complications of diabetes with proper care and by getting the appropriate treatment when necessary. A podiatrist on your diabetes care team can teach you how to take care of your feet, tell you what to watch out for, and treat any injuries before they can get worse.