Saturday, April 13, 2024
FOOT HEALTH Footwear/Biomechanics

Steel Toe Boots and Foot Problems: How to Prevent Pain in the Feet

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Making sure your steel toe boots are comfortable is very important. Foot structure is highly individualized. Not everyone’s feet can comfortably tolerate steel-toe boots. Steel toe boots can cause foot problems for many reasons.

Common foot problems that can occur from steel toe boots include corns, bunions, blisters, plantar fasciitis, athlete’s foot, and ingrown toenails. 

In this article, we will discuss how steel toe boots can cause these problems and solutions on what to do to fix it.

Foot Problems and How to Make Steel Toe Boots Feel More Comfortable

corn toe

1) Painful Corns Can Develop on the Toes

Painful corns can occur as a result of steel toe boots rubbing against the toes. The pinky toe is a common area for corn formation.

A corn is a thickened area of tissue that forms on the toes. It occurs due to repetitive pressure and friction.

A corn can develop on the top or the sides of the toes. It can feel painful when it is pressed on. 

If you have bent toes (hammertoes) and the toe box on a steel toe boot is not deep enough, it can rub uncomfortably on the tops of your toes, causing a painful corn. 

If the corn is ignored, it can turn into an ulcer (open sore). 

Solution

If you cannot obtain a new pair of steel toe boots that can accommodate your toes better, there are things that you can do to prevent irritation.

The most effective thing would be to obtain a digital corn pad. You can find these on Amazon. 

They are adhesive disposable pads that you can apply on the tops of your toes (or even between your toes) to prevent rubbing. 

This can protect the skin on your toes and prevent corn formation.

See photo below on how it should be applied on the toe.

hammertoe corn pad

Other pads that prevent corn formation include gel and cushion toe sleeves. You can apply either pad on your toe like a “hat” and this will help protect your toes when wearing your boots. 

If the corn is too painful, you should contact your foot doctor so that the corn can be trimmed. This is a painless procedure and will relieve foot pain.

bunion

2) Steel Toe Boots Can Cause Painful Bunions in the Foot

A bunion is a bump on the inside of your foot at the base of the big toe. It is mostly a genetic condition. 

However, if you wear narrow steel toe boots everyday, the repetitive pressure against the bone can make the bunion worse. 

Repetitive irritation from work boots can cause painful sores to develop on the inside of your big toe.

Solution

Use a bunion gel sleeve. A bunion gel sleeve will provide cushioning to your bunion. Try not to get one that is too thick. This will ensure that you can wear it comfortably in your shoes. 

Although bunion gel sleeves and splints do not fix your bunion, they can prevent irritation at the bunion site. 

Another option is to apply a simple donut pad to the bunion site. It is an adhesive disposable pad that can be used to offload a bunion when wearing shoes. 

3) Steel Toe Boots Can Cause Painful Blisters in the Feet

If your work boots are too big for your feet, you may develop a blister due to increased friction and pressure. This can be incredibly painful. 

Blisters are usually filled with clear fluid or blood. 

If you develop blisters, make sure you contact your foot doctor to get them examined and treated. 

Your doctor may lance your blister depending on the type of blister you develop. Blisters can also get infected so it’s best to seek professional help if you develop them. 

Solution

To prevent blisters, it’s important to have your feet measured to ensure you buy the right size boots.

When steel toe boots are loose, they are often loose in the heel area. You can obtain heel grips and put them on the back of your boots to keep your heels from sliding. 

You should also obtain thick socks that you can wear in your boots. Thick socks can help protect the skin.  

plantar fasciitis

4) Steel Toe Boots Can Cause Plantar Fasciitis

The plantar fascia is the ligament on the bottom of the arch. The ligament starts in the heel and fans into the toes. Plantar fasciitis is when there is inflammation of the ligament. 

People who roll inwards as they walk and have tight calf muscles are prone to developing plantar fasciitis. People with very high arches may also get plantar fasciitis due to increased pressure in the heel.

Steel toe boots can cause heel pain and arch pain. 

When you wear steel toe boots at work in an environment that requires continuous walking, prolonged standing, and weight bearing, plantar fasciitis symptoms can develop (1)

Although certain steel toe boots may have arch supports in them, they are usually not very supportive. 

Adequate arch support is needed to support the arch and heel, and prevent plantar fasciitis symptoms from occurring. 

Solution

Custom orthotics are an ideal choice. Custom orthotics are foot inserts that are custom-made to fit your feet. 

They are usually made from a rigid shell and have a soft top cover. They last for 7-10 years and can be worn daily in your boots. 

To obtain custom inserts, you will need to be evaluated by your local foot doctor. Your foot doctor will obtain a mold of your feet and have inserts made that contour your foot structure. 

In many cases, insurance may cover custom inserts. If not, the cost for custom inserts can vary from $400-$800 a pair. 

If you cannot get custom orthotics, over-the-counter orthotics can still be beneficial. They generally only last up to a year, but can provide temporary comfort. 

It is a full-length orthotic with firm arch support and a deep heel cup. These inserts will keep your arch elevated and keep your heels from sliding when walking. It can be effective to help reduce pain in the plantar fascia by supporting your arch better.  

  • If this full-length insert is causing your toes to crowd in your boots, you can obtain the ¾” length version. This ¾” insert will still support your arch but will be shorter so it won’t crowd your toes. 
athletes foot

5) Steel Toe Boots Can Cause Athlete’s Foot

Steel toe boots are often well-insulated. If your feet sweat a lot, you may develop wetness between your toes. This can cause athlete’s foot to develop. 

When you develop athlete’s foot, the skin between the toes can become white and feel very tender. 

If you develop athlete’s foot on the bottom of your feet, it will look scaly in appearance, and feel itchy. Athlete’s foot is contagious and can feel uncomfortable. 

Solution

To prevent athlete’s foot, you should buy socks that are designed to wick away moisture, such as Merino wool socks.

You can also apply cornstarch on your feet daily before putting on your socks. This will help keep your foot dry.  

If you have athlete’s foot already, you can obtain Terbinafine Hydrochloride 1% cream on Amazon and apply it onto your feet as directed. 

If it does not improve after two weeks, you should see your doctor for a prescription anti-fungal. 

6) Steel Toe Boots Can Cause Ingrown Toenails

When steel toe boots are too tight, they can place excess pressure on the toes, causing ingrown toenails. This can lead to pain, swelling, and even infection.

Solution

If you do develop an ingrown toenail while wearing steel toe boots, it is important to seek treatment promptly to prevent infection. Soak your foot in warm water, and apply antibiotic cream to the nail border daily.

Make sure to trim the toenails straight across to prevent ingrown toenails from forming.

How to Find the Right Steel Toe Boots for Your Feet

Steel toe boots, in general, are designed for protection as being the primary goal. They are usually inflexible. It’s important to find the right shoes to ensure you don’t develop foot problems. 

Find the Right Size Boot

Choosing a boot that is too tight can cause painful calluses and ulcers due to irritation of the boot against the skin.

If you pick a size that is too loose for your feet, you may develop blisters due to your feet moving in the shoes. Not only that, loose boots can place you at a higher risk for falls. This can be dangerous in the workplace. 

Solution 

When you buy steel-toe boots, make sure to go to a shoe store to get your feet measured first. 

Appropriate fit is very important when picking work boots. 

Shoe size is measured using a Brannock device.  

Here’s a great video by SanLuis Podiatry on how to properly measure your feet using a Brannock device.

After you find out your correct shoe size, try on a few pairs of steel toe boots at the store. 

You should make sure that the boots feel snug, but not too tight. It is recommended that there be a gap of 20mm of space between the heel and the boot (2).

Once you purchase the boots, make sure you break into them for a couple of weeks before wearing them all day at work. 

Wear them for 1 hour the first day, 2 hours the second day, and so on, until they feel comfortable. 

Make Sure the Boot Is Insulated

When feet are exposed to cold temperatures, blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow and increasing the risk of frostbite. The cold can penetrate through the steel toe and cause the feet to feel painful. Insulated boots can help keep the feet warm. 

Solution 

If you are going to be working in cold environments, make sure to find well-insulated boots to ensure comfort.

Boots that have Gore-Tex or Thinsulate lining protect against cold temperatures. 

Another thing to consider is the type of insulation used. Some boots use natural materials such as wool or felt, while others use synthetic materials such as polyester. 

Each type of insulation has its own benefits, so it is important to choose the right one for your needs. 

Make Sure the Steel Toe Boots Are Flexible, Lightweight, and Sturdy

Heavy boots can put excess pressure on the feet and cause discomfort. Especially if you are standing or walking for long periods of time. 

Additionally, boots that are not sturdy can lead to instability and increase the risk of falls.

Solution

Find boots that are made from lightweight materials like leather, nylon, and synthetic blends.

For instance, leather is great for people who work on concrete because of its resistance to debris. Leather material also makes the boots waterproof. Leather is durable, lightweight, and comfortable. 

Find boots that have a good arch support and cushioning. Make sure the boot is extra-depth and can fit a pair of custom inserts if needed. 

Boots that have good cushioning can help reduce foot fatigue and prevent falls. 

Safety boots should also be flexible so that they allow for natural foot movements, and at the same time offer protection and comfort.

painful toes

Are Steel Toe Boots Dangerous?

Steel toe boots are not dangerous. Although steel toe boots can crush your toes in an injury, they will do less damage to your toes when compared to wearing non steel-toe boots.

A study done by J.Kwon in Foot & Ankle International placed 150lbs of force on 5 pairs of cadaver feet where one foot was placed in steel toe boots and the other foot was placed in non-steel toe boots.

The study showed that the number and severity of fractures in the forefoot were less in the feet that had steel-toe boots on (3).

Conclusion

It’s important to pick the correct pair of boots, especially if you will be wearing them daily. Human feet are so different and require unique footwear.

However, if you already purchased steel toe boots and cannot buy a new pair, then you can use these techniques mentioned in this article to protect and support your feet.

If you need more information on how to pick the right boots, make sure to visit your local foot doctor for help.

Related article: A Detailed Guide on How Bad Shoes Can Cause Foot Pain

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steel toe pin

References

  1. Nurul Shuhadah, M. (2018). Steel toe cap boot usage and the prevalence to plantar fasciitis among industrial workers/Nurul Syuhada Mazlan (Doctoral dissertation, University of Malaya).http://studentsrepo.um.edu.my/9639/
  2. Dobson, J. A., Riddiford-Harland, D. L., Bell, A. F., & Steele, J. R. (2018). The three-dimensional shapes of underground coal miners’ feet do not match the internal dimensions of their work boots. Ergonomics, 61(4), 588-602.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140139.2017.1397201
  3. Kwon, J. Y., Campbell, J. T., Myerson, M. S., & Jeng, C. L. (2011). Effect of a steel toe cap on forefoot injury pattern in a cadaveric model. Foot & Ankle International, 32(4), 443-447.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3113/FAI.2011.0443 

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Vaishnavi Bawa
Dr. Vaishnavi Bawa is a Podiatrist who specializes in treating foot and ankle pathology. LifesLittleSteps mission is to educate the public about foot health in an easy-to-understand manner using evidence-based medicine.
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