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Closeup of cracked dry skin on heel

All You Need to Know About Cracked Heels’ Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Cracked heels, or fissures, are a very common affliction. At best they are annoying, at worst they are unsightly and painful. Up to a quarter of the population will experience cracked heels at some point in their lives, and statistically, women have a greater level of sufferance than men. All too often your feet are neglected as part of your overall health. Your feet take more punishment than probably any other part of your body, and are more open to an immeasurable number of health threats.

It’s easy to be oblivious to the, almost constant, threats to the health of your feet. It is also very easy to overlook the onset of a potential problem, until it starts to impair your quality of life or your self-confidence. Your skin acts as your body’s outer layer of protection, thus the health and maintenance of that protector is vitally important.

Your Skin, Your body’s Protector and Defender

Your skin is the largest of your body’s organs, and is made up of seven layers. The soles of the feet are made up of three primary layers, plus sub-layers. The primary layers are the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat layer. The outer layer, the epidermis, is around 1.5mm thick and is made up of three sub-layers, the first being the stratum corneum. This protects the inner layers from foreign objects and waterproofs the skin.

Beneath the stratum corneum is where the squamous cells are found. They work continuously to help with the constant replacement of cells of the outer stratum corneum. Below this is the basal layer. Basal cells are constantly dividing and are then pushed up into the upper layers. So, a healthy epidermis is constantly evolving and rejuvenating itself.

When the stratum corneum becomes undermined, the whole of the epidermis is at risk and cracks can appear. The cracks are visibly unpleasant and can very often become painful. As these cracks become deeper, the inner layers of the skin are exposed. At this point they become vulnerable to infection and bleeding. Hence, early recognition and attention is vital.

Who Is at Risk of Cracked Heels?

Diabetics, and people with other underlying health problems, are at a higher risk of getting cracked heels. This also applies to those who are overweight. Research has also shown that genetics can play a part in a person’s likelihood of being a victim. But in reality, everyone is at risk of becoming a sufferer. For otherwise healthy individuals with cracked heels, a close look at their routine will usually identify the problem.

So, What Are the Main Causes of Cracked Heels?

Losing the Skin’s Natural Moisture

The most common cause, quite simply, is a lack of moisture. The skin on the underside of the foot is susceptible to becoming dry and rough. This is due to the area having a relatively low density of sweat glands. The sweat glands work to maintain the natural balance of moisture in, and on the surface of the skin. As the skin becomes dry it loses its suppleness and elasticity, it then becomes vulnerable to cracking.

Essential Deficiencies Through Poor Dietary Habits

The level of a person’s overall health is dependent on having a balanced level of vitamins and minerals gained through a healthy diet. Any deficiency will have an adverse effect on the body’s wellbeing, and this includes the feet. Vitamins C, D, E, and K are particularly important to maintaining healthy skin, as is sufficient levels of zinc.

The effects of Ageing

Older people are at greater risk of cracking heels. It’s no secret that as the skin ages, it loses its elasticity. It is easy to overlook this fact when we think about our feet. Having lost a degree of elasticity, and when dry, the skin on the heels is very likely to crack. Just as every aspect of our health should be monitored closely as we age, so it should be with our feet.

Contributing Effects of Underlying Health Disorders

Numerous other disorders can play a part in heel cracking. Sufferers of athlete’s foot will often experience this additional affliction. Diabetics are particularly susceptible to all manner of foot health issues, often due to the circulatory problems associated with the condition.

Other skin disorders, such as psoriasis and eczema as well as thyroid disease, all increase a person’s likelihood of having cracked heels. Anyone taking over the counter, or prescribed medication, needs to be aware that some drugs can contribute to the process of drying out the skin.

The Effects of Being Overweight

Obesity is a major concern to your overall health, including the feet. The skin on the heels of the feet is very tight, and as such is vulnerable to sustained or excessive pressure. Carrying too much weight increases the pressure on the foot. The heel takes most of the impacting weight as we walk, and the sustained pressure of standing. Quite obviously, the more weight going down onto the heel, the greater the risk of heel damage.

Hygiene is Essential to Healthy Feet

Beautiful feet

Hygiene is of paramount importance to the health of our feet. Thorough cleaning is vital to your podiatric health. Being in constant contact with the ground, feet are exposed to all manner of risks. This exposure risk rises during the warmer months. This is when you are more likely to wear open shoes, or no shoes at all. With the foot being exposed to the open air for long periods, the skin will dry much quicker leaving the heels more vulnerable to cracking. The use of moisturizing and antibacterial soap products will reduce the risk of cracked heels.

Prolonged Exposure to Water or Wet Environs

Exposure to wet or damp environments are a big contributor to cracking heels. Whether it is through work or leisure, prolonged periods in these conditions will strip the feet of their natural oils. This removes the skin’s natural defensive barriers and exposes the skin to the surrounding elements, leaving them more likely to crack.

During the warm months people are more likely to be exposed to wet conditions during their leisure time. This, coupled with the desire to wear open shoes, or to go barefoot, exasperates the likelihood of the heels becoming dry and stripped of their natural defensive qualities.

Footwear Choice Has a Bearing on Foot Health

Footwear has a great influence on a person’s vulnerability to experiencing cracked heels. It is the choice of footwear that makes women more susceptible than men. It is the style trends in women’s shoes that dictate, to varying degrees, that the foot is partially or totally exposed. These fashion trends are less of an issue in the styling of men’s shoes.

Footwear that is open leaves more skin open to the surrounding elements, this raises the risk of the skin becoming too dry. Open backed shoes allow the heel to spread, this stretches the skin of the heel. With the drier skin, then being stretched, eventually, cracking is almost inevitable. The warmer months increase this effect, for both men and women as the choice of footwear tends to expose more of the foot to the elements.

How Can I Treat My Cracked Heels?

Having decided to treat your cracked heels, your first stop is very likely to be the pharmacy. There, you will be amazed, bamboozled, even confused at the sheer number of products available to treat your condition. Every product will claim to be the perfect cure, and to be the very best on the market. Of course, they can’t all be the best, in fact, some of them are probably not even worth the cost of the packaging.

In reality, you will probably try out, and need, more than one product. Without a professional diagnosis, you really are shopping in the dark. Very likely, time and money will be wasted on inappropriate products, or products that simply fail to achieve the claims they make.

Foot Scrub Creams

You will probably begin your self-administered treatment with a foot scrub. These creams tend to contain pumice or salt granules which act as an abrasive, designed to remove dead skin cells and hard skin. In addition to the abrasive content there will be any number of other additives. Aloe Vera, coconut oil, and tea tree oil are common, as are peppermint, lavender and honey. Manufacturers will use just about anything they believe that creates the “Sounds good and smells good” effect.

In addition to exotic sounding ingredients, many of which are of no use, you will usually find magnesium. Magnesium is essential, it acts as a catalyst aiding the skin’s ability to absorb other moisturizing agents.

Post Scrub Moisturizing

After choosing your preferred foot scrub product you will want to select an appropriate moisturizer. Once again, the pharmacist’s shelves bombard you with choice. How can you possibly know which product is the correct one for your condition? It’s the choice of risk, again. You will see ingredients that include lanolin, paraffin, urea and lactic acid and the lesser familiar glycerol and propylene glycol.

Which is best for you, and which product will complement your choice of foot scrub? What seemed like a good idea to address your foot condition can rapidly turn into navigating a retail minefield. In addition, you will see various gadgets which claim to remove dry and dead skin for all manner of foot conditions.

Couple all of this confusion with your own medical status. Do you have any allergies, or underlying medical conditions which may preclude you from certain products or their ingredients? Are you taking any medication which is incompatible with certain products? We are not all experts, and we must bear that in mind.

The only thing you can be sure of is that, without a professional diagnosis, you are shopping blindly, armed with nothing more than guess work and hope. Having your condition appraised by a professional can save you time and money, not to mention the peace of mind knowing that you won’t be doing more harm than good. Understanding all the available products and the ingredients they contain requires knowledge, knowledge you can access through your local professional podiatrist.

Should I Get a Professional Diagnosis?

Cracked heels will not go away by themselves. Untreated, the cracks in the skin will get deeper and deeper, until they bleed. They become open to infection and very painful. Professional assistance should be sort before your condition gets to that point. Early diagnosis will save you time, money and a lot of discomfort.

You also want to feel confident about your appearance, particularly during the warmer months when you will be wearing open shoes, or no shoes at all. So, think ahead to summer, you want to feel confident and look good. If you are beginning to see the onset of dry cracking skin, seek professional assistance.

How Will A Professional Treat My Cracked Heels?

The first thing a professional will do will be to diagnose the severity of your condition. It is also vital that your practitioner ascertains whether you have any underlying medical conditions as this can affect treatment decisions. Your medical status and your lifestyle will also help in understanding what is causing your cracked heels. Armed with this information, a suitable, effective course of treatment can be decided on.

After the diagnostics, your practitioner will very likely choose to remove the hard and dead skin on your heels. This will be undertaken using an abrasive file. This is a far more skillful process than perhaps it looks. For this treatment to be safe and effective it needs to be administered by someone trained and well versed in the process.

Emollient Therapy

You may have already been using soap products which claim to act as a moisturizer. Many of the moisturizing elements in these products are occlusive. This means they trap moisture, this can in fact be counterproductive. The effect of using an occlusive can lead to skin maceration, the same as the effect of prolonged soaking of your hands or feet in water.

Your chiropodist is likely to select a moisturizer that is a humectant. These moisturizers, rather than trap moisture in the skin, attract moisture, which eliminates the maceration effect. The moisturizer will also contain a keratolytic element, this promotes the removing of dead skin cells while also helping to promote the natural healing process.

Following your initial visit, your practitioner will advise you on whether you will require any follow up treatment. If this is the case, they will create an ongoing, convenient treatment plan with you.

Post Treatment Guidance and Advice

female feet

As stated earlier, the number of products available for the treatment of cracked heels is mind boggling. The average person cannot be expected to understand the complexities of every product and their suitability for their own particular condition and lifestyle.

After your diagnosis and initial treatment, very often the condition can then be self-treated at home. This can be done with the expert advice and guidance from your podiatrist. These experts have the knowledge to guide you to the products that are suitable for your condition, medical status and lifestyle. Their knowledge will save you time, money, discomfort and the embarrassment of ugly cracked heels.

Save Time and Money with Your local Podiatrist                                                      

With excellent road access and a wide catchment area, Feet@theclinic in Loughborough, Leicestershire is the ideal private podiatric clinic, with a homely, personalized feel. It’s wheelchair friendly and offers individualized diagnostics, treatment, after care and advice by skilled practitioners.

 

 

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Rebekah Henning is a Foot Health Professional (FHP) who has gone through specialized training at The SMAE Institute based in Maidenhead. She is fully trained and qualified in both the theoretical and practical aspects of foot health and care to enable her to assess the condition of your feet and treat as appropriate, referring you if necessary. She provides routine foot care and maintenance for your feet using the latest procedures and techniques to ensure that you receive the best possible treatment. Her knowledge and skills are up to date by undertaking continual professional development and she is also a Member of the British Association of Foot Health Professionals (MAFHP) and a Member of the College of Foot Health Professionals (MCFHP).

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