Many gardeners will experience foot pain this season as a result of overlooking the needs of their feet. But a few minutes of preparation and good common sense can keep gardeners comfortable all year.
“Gardening is an exertive weight-bearing activity and should be considered a sport rather than a passive hobby,” said Dr. Paul R. Kasdan, a board-certified podiatrist and medical director for OurHealthNetwork.com. “As with any sport, one should make sure to wear appropriate foot gear and to properly stretch before engaging in the activity.”
During gardening, the feet play an important role in movement, supporting weight and balancing stance to reduce falls. Feet also act as shock absorbers when trudging along the garden. Foot problems commonly associated with weight-bearing activities like gardening are usually caused by wearing inappropriate footgear or the lack of proper warm-up exercises.
“To always be pain-free, the feet must be encased in the proper shoes and socks. If the shoes do not provide proper support and cushioning, then the feet lose efficiency and problems eventually occur,” Kasdan says.
Before heading out to the garden, consider Kasdan’s shoe and sock recommendations:
- A rounded-toe shoe with a deep toe box helps prevent corns and bunions, ripped and black toenails, toe blisters, and ingrown toenails, all of which contribute to gardeners’ foot pain.
- Rubber soles prevent bruises when stepping on stones, and they provide good shock absorption for the gardener’s entire body.
- Loose socks with mild elastic compression at the top will ensure good circulation to the feet.
- Socks made of a lycra and cotton blend are very efficient at keeping gardeners’ feet cool and wicking sweat off the feet.
Caring for footwear is important for gardeners. With more than 250,000 sweat glands in each foot, feet are among the most perspiring parts of the body. In one day, the feet can produce more than a pint of sweat. Gardeners should remove the inner-soles of their shoes and let them dry out between gardening sessions.
Once the proper footwear is assembled, gardeners should take a few minutes to stretch and prepare for gardening activities. Kasdan recommends two exercises gardeners can use to help prevent injury:
1. Lunge to stretch the Achilles tendon
Facing a wall, stand about 3 feet out and lean onto the surface with arms shoulder-width apart. Keeping your back straight, move your right foot toward the wall until it is about 1½ feet away. With your left foot straight, bend the right foot until you feel a stretch in the Achilles tendon. Hold this position for 15 seconds and repeat with other leg. Repeat several times.
2. Rotate ankles
Sitting on a chair, extend your right foot and rotate your toes toward you. Hold for five seconds. Then to the right, down and to the left, holding each position for five seconds. Rotate your ankle in a complete circle. Do this for one to two minutes with each foot.
“We recommend this warm-up routine for our patients that garden and have found it to be effective in preventing symptoms associated with ‘out of shape’ feet,” Kasdan said.
Gardeners are also encouraged to give their feet attention at the end of the day. To prevent additional foot problems, Kasdan advises his patients to wash their feet well and examine them for blisters, sores and inflamed areas. Should these conditions arise, gardeners should treat them immediately with first-aid cream or see a podiatrist.
Here are some common foot problems to be aware of when gardening and their causes:
Bruised toenails and ingrown toenails may be caused by:
- Stubbing a toe or dropping a heavy object on it
- Wearing a gardening shoe that is too short
- Wearing a gardening shoe with a shallow or narrow toe box. (The area where the toes sit in a shoe is called the toe box). When the toe box is too shallow or too narrow, the toenails will rub against the top or sides of the toe box and may become bruised or ingrown.
- Cutting the toenails too short or rounded. The nails should be cut straight across, and always let them be a comfortable length.
- Kneeling in the garden for long periods of time. This puts abnormal pressure on the toes and toenails and may cause bruising.
- Not wearing socks. Socks act as a cushion and reduce friction on the toes and feet. Not wearing them allows toenails to be exposed to unnecessary friction and may cause bruising.
Swelling may be caused by:
- Gravity. This is the most common cause of swelling of the feet and ankles. When the legs are in a dependent position (standing or sitting), gravity pulls blood and our lymph fluids down to our feet and ankles. This swelling can be reduced with the use of compression or support stockings.
- Socks that have elastic on the ankles. This can restrict the normal flow of blood and lymph fluids to the feet.
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- High heat and humidity. If you are gardening in this type of climate, then take frequent “cooling breaks,” and sit with your legs elevated.
- Too much salt. Salt can cause water retention and swelling of the feet and ankles.
Foot and toe cramps may be caused by:
- Kneeling in the garden for long periods of time. This may reduce circulation to the feet and toes by constricting blood vessels, causing muscles to become oxygen-starved, leading to cramps (muscle spasms). Getting up frequently and walking will help to prevent this.
- Socks and gardening shoes that are too constrictive. This may cause cramps for the same reason. Make sure the elastic on your socks is not too constrictive, and wear the correct size gardening shoes.
- Being out of shape and stressing leg and foot muscles for long periods of time. Gardening is exertive. Gradually build up the time you spend gardening, and stretch your legs often.
Throbbing and aching feet may be caused by:
- Too much gardening for you, either due to physical problems (overweight, age, illness, et cetera) or being out of shape
- Worn down gardening shoes or gardening shoes that do not fit properly
- Foot pathology, such as bunions, hammertoes and heel spurs