Trapping a nerve in the foot is a painful and debilitating experience. Some people liken it to a severe case of pins of needles; a sharp pain radiates through the foot, yet the foot feels strangely numb.
Trapped nerves disrupt daily life because they dampen our senses and limit our mobility. It rarely causes lasting damage to the nervous system, but they do create a variety of orthopedic complaints.
Most foot conditions require customized treatments. Our unique lifestyle choices will determine how much pressure is placed on the feet. Moreover, the strength and stability of our musculoskeletal systems will determine how much pressure our bodies can handle.
It’s essential to analyze the body as a whole and to take note of the various physiological, behavioral and lifestyle factors that can cause a trapped nerve in the foot.
Table of Contents:
- 1 How to Treat a Trapped Nerve in the Foot
- 2 Trapped Nerves in the Foot
- 3 Trapped Nerves that Affect the Foot
- 3.1 Sciatica
- 3.2 A Pinched Sural Nerve
- 3.3 Nerve Disorders and Flat Foot Syndrome
- 3.4 Overpronation and Trapped Nerves
- 3.5 Pinched Nerves and Poor Posture
- 3.6 Sever’s Disease in Children
- 4 Treating and Preventing a Pinched Nerve
How to Treat a Trapped Nerve in the Foot
To treat a trapped or ‘pinched’ nerve effectively, it’s critical to understand the role and function of nerves in the body. It’s also useful to understand more about the mechanics of the body.
The information in this guide will help you to do the following:
- Establish if you have a trapped nerve in your foot (or if you’re experiencing something else).
- Determine the location of the problem.
- Determine the cause or causes.
- Treat the cause of the problem.
- Prevent it from happening in the future.
- Alleviate the pain.
What Are Nerves?
Nerves help to transmit important messages around the body.
There are three categories of nerves, each with a different role:
- Sensory Nerves – Our sensory nerves relay information about whether something is safe to touch or not. For example, these nerves would alert us if water is scalding. Damaged sensory nerves are unable to relay this information effectively so that sufferers can become desensitized to potentially dangerous stimuli such as hot water.
- Autonomic Nerves – These nerves control physiological bodily functions such as digestion and heart rate. These nerves are vital for ensuring robust physiological health.
- Motor Nerves – These nerves control how much strength the body uses to carry out its daily tasks. For example, motor nerves can tell us to flex our muscles when picking up heavy shopping bags and relax once we’ve put them down. As such, motor nerves are essential for modulating strength and preserving energy!
As you can see, even the most mundane daily tasks require a fully functioning nervous system.
What Is a Trapped Nerve?
A trapped nerve occurs when muscle, scar tissue or bone presses onto the nerve and pinches it. This usually happens because too much pressure has been applied to the body, perhaps through injury, poor posture or exercise.
It is vital to distinguish between the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (the torso, arms, hands, legs, and feet). Trapped nerves are more likely to occur in the peripheral nervous system as these nerves are generally less protected by bones.
When the nerve is pinched or damaged, the nerve ending becomes aggravated and inflamed. The nerve (neuron) is unable to fire and receive electrical signals effectively, so it becomes temporarily paralyzed. This can lead to stinging, cramping burning or numbness.
Other conditions (such as plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, and muscle strain) can feel similar to a trapped nerve. However, these conditions are not the same, and they require different types of treatment.
How Do Nerves Become Trapped?
Mechanical causes are typically responsible for nerve entrapment. For example, repeatedly crossing one leg over the other is standard behavior that can cause a nerve in the leg to become pinched.
When you consider how many movements the average adult makes in a day, it’s no surprise that some habits are threatening to the peripheral nervous system.
Consider whether any the following risk factors apply to you:
- Poor posture
- Badly-fitting footwear
- Wearing high heels
- Repetitive movements (i.e. typing, driving)
- Intense or novel sports training (running, dance, soccer, weightlifting)
- Serious injury (i.e. road traffic accidents, falling over)
- Being overweight
- Overpronating when running or walking (caused by flat feet)
- Surgery (as surgery heals, the scar tissue can very occasionally cause a nerve to become trapped)
Can a Trapped Nerve Cause Permanent Damage?
A trapped nerve can cause permanent damage, but this is relatively rare. Occasionally, surgery may be required to remove fibrous damage caused by the problem. However, if intervention is taken as early as possible, it’s rare for it to cause permanent damage.
In their book ‘Exercise and Disease Management’ the authors warn that, when pinched nerves persist for a long time, people tend to compensate by altering their posture.
This can cause another set of orthopedic problems. It might even cause a trapped nerve to occur elsewhere in the body. It’s a good idea to try and relieve a trapped nerve as soon as you can to prevent long-term orthopedic damage.
If a nerve in the central nervous system (brain or spinal cord) is trapped or damaged, it is less likely to recover fully. Conversely, nerves that become trapped in the peripheral nervous system are generally easier to release.
Peripheral nerves are also more able to repair themselves if any damage has occurred. This is a good sign for those suffering from a trapped nerve in the foot.
Although they rarely cause lasting damage, medical conditions can cause the nerve to become permanently damaged. This condition is called peripheral neuropathy.
It is important to be aware of this condition. Peripheral neuropathy can present itself as just one or two ‘trapped nerves’ then gradually worsen into a widespread feeling of numbness.
What is Peripheral Neuropathy?
Some medical conditions (or medications) can cause damage to the peripheral nerves. This causes a structural change to the nerve cell, which may be irreversible.
Peripheral Neuropathy dampens people’s sensations, so they’re not always able to determine if something is safe to touch. Depending on where the nerve damage is, it may also be very difficult to walk. The damage can be localized, but it is often widespread.
Conditions that can cause damage to the nerves are as follows:
- Vitamin B1 deficiency
- Some antibiotics
- Coeliac Disease
- Mistakes during surgery
In many cases, the pain starts at the big toe and radiates up the leg. As such, it’s important to be aware of peripheral neuropathy. However, this article will mainly focus on releasing and alleviating trapped nerves.
Treating the Nerves Holistically
It’s tempting to assume that we have a different set of nerves for each limb, but this is not the case. The nervous system is perhaps the most complex system within the body; many of the nerves are interconnected, and they modulate pain throughout the entire body.
Let’s assume you’ve pinched the ‘sciatic nerve’ in the lumbar spine region. This nerve runs from the lumbar spine down to the big toe.
If you’d pinched the nerve in the spine region, you would probably feel numbness in your lower back. However, you would probably also find it very hard to lift your foot and would have pain across the top of your foot.
As such, you may wrongly assume you’ve trapped a nerve in the top of your foot – when, really, the site of entrapment is in the spine. Often, you have to look far and wide to find the source of a trapped nerve. This is one of the reasons why foot pain is commonly misdiagnosed!
Chiropractors base their practice on a ‘holistic’ approach to health to establish the cause of bodily complaints. When it comes to a trapped nerve in the foot, they will explore the possibility of this, but they may also be interested to see if a trapped nerve is present anywhere else in the body. They would also evaluate whether foot pain is being caused by poor posture or misalignment in the body.
As we’ll explore, poor posture and poorly-fitting shoes are probably the leading causes of trapped nerves throughout the body, and also the leading cause of foot pain. These factors need to be corrected to release nerves and prevent them from becoming trapped again.
Trapped Nerves in the Foot
According to scientists, there are approximately 200,000 nerve endings in the soles of our feet. This is what makes our feet so sensitive! Trapped nerves in the foot are a fairly common phenomenon.
Three of the most common conditions include Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome, Morton’s Neuroma and Plantar Nerve Entrapment. These are described in detail below.
Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
Tarsal tunnel syndrome is essentially a trapped nerve on the inner ankle. The tibial nerve is closely implicated in the development of this condition. The tibial nerve travels down the back of the leg and enters the foot via the tarsal tunnel.
The tarsal tunnel is located on the inner ankle, close to where the ankle ‘bump’ is located. Pain occurs when the tibial nerve gets pinched on its entrance into the tarsal tunnel.
Tarsal tunnel syndrome may be caused by many factors. Anything that puts pressure on the tibial nerve or the ankle is likely to be a cause.
Flat foot syndrome can place a strain on the lower leg and ankle, so this may lead to tarsal tunnel syndrome. An ankle sprain, obesity, poor hip alignment, and diabetes are also risk factors for developing tarsal tunnel syndrome.
Symptoms of Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
- A numb feeling in the foot and ankle usually focused on the inner side of the foot.
- Pain is radiating through the toes, causing a tingling sensation.
- Pain may also be felt in the heel.
- Hot and cold sensations or pins and needles.
- Swelling around the ankle.
- They may be a dull pain in the tibial nerve, which gets worse nearer to the ankle. The tibial nerve runs down the back of the leg.
Morton’s neuroma (or Morton’s metatarsalgia) is a painful condition that is caused by a trapped nerve in the ball of the foot.
The nerve becomes trapped just below the toes – between the 2nd and 3rd or 3rd and 4th toes. It is the plantar nerve which becomes entrapped, and the nerve tissue often becomes thickened as a result. If you have a thickened and tender section of skin just below your toes, it’s likely you’ve developed Morton’s neuroma.
Scientists are not exactly sure why the plantar nerve becomes entrapped. It may occur when too much pressure is placed on the toes. This pressure might aggravate the plantar nerve and cause it to become squashed.
Indeed, Morton’s neuroma is more common amongst women – perhaps because women are likely to wear tight, pointy shoes that do not allow the toes to splay comfortably. Also, Morton’s neuroma may also be caused by flat feet and overpronation.
Symptoms of Morton’s Neuroma
- Tingling between the toes or just below the toes
- Pain on the ball of the foot which can make it difficult to stand for long periods
- Numbness in the toes
- A thickened piece of skin on the ball of the foot that may feel hot and inflamed (this shouldn’t be confused with blisters)
- Symptoms usually get worse when you put shoes on and improve when you walk barefoot
Trapped Plantar Nerves in the Feet
As mentioned, a trapped plantar nerve can cause Morton’s neuroma, but it can also cause other symptoms. The plantar nerves are two of the largest nerves in the foot, and they’re crucial for arch strength, mobility and balance.
An entrapped plantar nerve often causes pain to the ankle, heel or the arch of the foot. Plantar nerve damage may also be a later stage development of tarsal tunnel syndrome.
An entrapped plantar nerve is slightly different from the condition plantar fasciitis – as we’ll explore below. It’s important to try and alleviate a trapped plantar nerve as it can significantly affect posture and mobility.
Symptoms of a Trapped Plantar Nerve
- Pain in the foot and heel that is aggravated by high impact activities such as running.
- The foot becomes more painful in the evening when trying to sleep.
- You often do not experience the tingling, numbness, or ‘pins and needles’ sensations associated with other nerve conditions such as Morton’s neuroma
Trapped Nerves that Affect the Foot
As mentioned, it is essential to view the nervous system as a whole, rather than try to isolate individual nerves.
What feels like a trapped nerve in the foot may be caused by a trapped nerve elsewhere in the body. We’ve already discussed how tarsal tunnel syndrome in the ankle is partially affected by the tibial nerve in the leg.
The sciatic nerve is the longest in the human body. It starts at the base of the spine and radiates down to the toes. Many people will experience entrapment or inflammation of the sciatic nerve during their lifetime.
It’s common for pain to start at the hips or buttocks and travel down the leg towards the toes. So, if your foot pain started in the legs, this might suggest that your sciatic nerve has become pinched.
Symptoms of Sciatica
- Pain in the buttock, usually only on one side
- A tingling sensation in the feet
- Stabbing, burning and shooting pains that start in the leg, and sometimes radiate into the foot
- Back pain might be a symptom, but it if the pain is only felt in the back then it is not likely to be sciatica
- The symptoms can flare up when sneezing, coughing or standing up very quickly
A Pinched Sural Nerve
The sural nerve radiates through the calf muscle and terminates at the big toe. Aggravation or entrapment of the sural nerve can cause pain in the foot. A pinched sural nerve may be caused by extreme exercise, scar tissue, surgical trauma and wearing tight boots or plaster casts.
According to the Sports Injury Bulletin, a pinched sural nerve can cause pain to occur in the heels, so the sufferer often wrongly assumes they are dealing with Achilles tendonitis or plantar fasciitis – which are not nerve conditions.
We’ll explore the differences between these conditions below.
Symptoms of a Pinched Sural Nerve
- Extreme heel pain
- The foot goes numb after exercise (the heel in particular)
Nerve Disorders and Flat Foot Syndrome
As mentioned, a common risk factor for many pinched nerve conditions is flat feet. Also, flat foot syndrome is thought to cause (or aggravate) many other foot conditions.
People with flat feet lack arch support. As a result, the impact of walking and running must be absorbed in other ways. The inner ankle tends to collapse, and the foot splays outwards, which can cause misalignment in the body.
It can also cause the sciatic or tibial nerves to become trapped. This is because people with flat foot syndrome may tense areas of their legs to absorb pressure that would otherwise be absorbed by the arches. It is this tension which leads the muscle to press on the nerves.
Overpronation and Trapped Nerves
Overpronation is a widespread problem in runners who have flat feet. Recent studies have confirmed that the biomechanical differences in women’s feet make them more likely to overpronate than men.
Overpronation is a problem because it causes imbalances in the foot. Each time the foot pounds the pavement, it rolls outwards – because the arch is not strong enough to keep the foot in a neutral position. This aggravates the ankle and can lead to tarsal tunnel syndrome.
It can also cause the plantar nerves to become entrapped. As such, if you have flat feet, managing this condition is crucial for preventing a variety of orthopedic conditions.
Pinched Nerves and Poor Posture
Poor posture is the cause of many orthopedic complaints. But why should poor posture cause pinched nerves specifically?
Poor posture usually affects the spine, and many nerves pass through the spine. If the spine becomes misaligned, or a disk is slipped, this will put pressure on the nerves that pass through the spine. Poor posture is one of the leading causes of sciatica.
Boring Sports Routines Cause Pinched Nerves
An inactive lifestyle or a lifestyle that involves the same exercises over and over again can encourage pinched nerves. This is because boring exercise routines encourage muscle imbalances to develop in the body.
When muscles are imbalanced, they put undue pressure on the nerves. For example, weightlifters are at risk of developing pinched nerves in their arms if they overdevelop particular muscles. This is also true for runners if they overdevelop specific muscles in the leg because this traps the tibial nerve.
It’s important to include variety and balance in any exercise regime to discourage muscle imbalances. Also, if you live a completely sedentary life, it’s important to introduce some activity as this will protect against muscle imbalances.
As we’ll explore, exercises such as Yoga and Pilates are good because they focus on correcting muscle imbalances and improving posture.
Do I Have a Pinched Nerve or Plantar Fasciitis?
As mentioned, the plantar nerves or sural nerves can often become entrapped. This can cause pain in the ball of the foot and the heel.
Plantar fasciitis is a similar condition that causes extreme heel pain. However, plantar fasciitis is not caused by a pinched nerve. Instead, it appears to be caused by inflammation and damage to the Achilles tendon (Achilles tendonitis). So, if you have heel pain, how can you tell if it’s a pinched nerve or plantar fasciitis?
If your heel pain is worse at night, when trying to sleep, it’s more likely to be a pinched nerve, because plantar fasciitis heel pain usually flares up in the morning.
The pain associated with a pinched nerve will usually get worse with training and when you stretch. Conversely, stretching can usually improve the pain associated with plantar fasciitis.
As you can see, it’s quite important to distinguish between the two to see if stretching and manipulation will be a helpful recovery tool or not.
Both a pinched nerve and plantar fasciitis can be caused by poor posture and poor footwear. As such, investing in appropriate footwear and improving your posture would have a positive effect on both conditions.
Sever’s Disease in Children
Although the symptoms are almost identical, Sever’s disease should not be confused with a trapped nerve.
Sever’s disease affects active children and young teenagers. Numbness, tingling, and burning can occur as the heel plate grows. The pain can be managed with appropriate footwear and pain medication and will usually subside on its own.
It is much more common in girls than boys and rarely occurs beyond the age of fourteen years old.
Treating and Preventing a Pinched Nerve
As discussed, it’s important to take a holistic approach towards treating and preventing a trapped nerve.
The following treatments are considered effective for a pinched nerve because they relieve pressure placed on the nerves, improve posture, and contribute to good orthopedic health.
- Practice good posture in your daily life – Good posture is vital for nerve health. If you are not sure how to practice good posture, consult a reliable online resource such as this one from the American Posture Institute. Alternatively, consider seeing a chiropractor for guidance.
- Yoga and Pilates – Yoga and Pilates will also improve flexibility. Moreover, Pilates helps you to strengthen the muscles you don’t usually engage in daily life. This helps to stabilize your strength and correct muscle imbalances. Balanced muscles are less likely to entrap nerves!
- Commit to a varied sports routine – In the same way that Pilates can protect against muscle imbalances, so too can a varied sports routine.
- Comfortable footwear – Comfortable footwear is vital for orthopedic health. It will protect against nerve entrapment because the muscles, bones, and ligaments will be as relaxed as possible. Where possible, try not to wear high heeled shoes and shoes that are very tight around the toes.
- Orthotics or specialist shoes – If you have flat feet, it’s important to buy shoes with added arch support, or to get custom orthotics. This will relieve the pressure on your arches and ankles and prevent nerve conditions such as tarsal tunnel syndrome.
- Go barefoot – Many studies have shown walking barefoot helps to improve posture. When you are at home, try going barefoot as much as possible to protect against nerve damage.
- Manage your weight – Being overweight can put a lot of strain on the joints and muscles. In turn, this can cause nerves to become trapped.
- Stretching and massaging the foot – This may be helpful in some cases. For example, plantar nerve entrapment (i.e., pain in the heels and arches) is not thought to respond very well to massage. However, Morton’s neuroma (thickened skin and tingling just under the toes) is believed to respond quite well to massage.
- Surgery – This is the last resort and may be required to remove the fibrous damage caused by pinched nerves. In bad cases of Morton’s neuroma, surgery may be required to remove the thickened damage under the toes.
Managing the Pain of a Pinched Nerve
There are many things you can try to reduce the pain associated with a trapped nerve.
- Anti-inflammatories and pain medication
- Cortisone shots
- Appling ice to the area – This has been found particularly helpful for managing Morton’s neuroma and tarsal tunnel syndrome.
- Rest – Although rest may be helpful, try not to sit for long periods of time in the same position. This can cause conditions such as Sciatica to flare up. If you do wish to exercise, it’s a good idea to try some gentle Yoga or Pilates. This should keep you mobile without aggravating the pinched nerve too much.
- Magnesium supplements – Upping your intake of magnesium may help reduce pain.
- Acupuncture – There is some evidence to suggest that acupuncture can relieve trapped nerve pain.
Many people find the above principles useful for treating, preventing and managing a pinched nerve. Although the same principles apply to all trapped nerves, targeted treatments do vary slightly. We’ll list the most effective treatments for Morton’s Neuroma, Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome, and Sciatica.
How to Treat Morton’s Neuroma
- Use anti-inflammatory pain medication for immediate relief.
- Wear comfortable, flat shoes that have plenty of space in the toe.
- Consider purchasing an orthotics device – a cushion or pad that sits on the neuroma to relieve the pressure. This is particularly necessary if you want to do high impact sports.
- If you are overweight, consider weight loss to reduce the pressure on the foot.
- Walk barefoot when at home.
- If symptoms do not improve, see a podiatrist or health professional.
How to Treat Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
- Use anti-inflammatory pain medication.
- If you are a runner, take specialist advice to ensure you are wearing the correct running shoes for your running style.
- If you believe the syndrome has been caused by exercise, try to abstain from high impact training until it is completely healed.
- Ensure your footwear provides adequate arch and ankle support.
- If you wear shoes with laces, make sure the laces are not tied too tightly.
- Stretching of the legs is likely to be useful for helping to elongate the tibial nerve.
- If symptoms do not improve, see a podiatrist or health professional.
Cure Sciatic Pain in the Foot
- Sciatic pain responds well to gentle exercise so do stay mobile. Pilates stretches that focus on the back, leg, and ankle are likely to improve symptoms.
- Try to improve your posture.
- Do not sit or lie down for long periods.
- Walk barefoot when you’re inside your home.
- Pain medication may or may not be helpful.
- If symptoms do not improve, see a podiatrist or health professional.
Heat Treatments for a Pinched Nerve
It’s important to remember that, when the nerve is pinched, it can’t process information effectively.
As such, you may become desensitized to your environment. Doctors warn against using hot water bottles or foot baths to alleviate pain because your nerves may not be able to detect if the heat is too hot. This could lead to scalding.
If you want to use heat to alleviate pain, opt for specially designed heat pads rather than hot water bottles or foot baths.
How Long Does a Pinched Nerve Last?
Nerves can remain trapped for days, weeks, months – or even years. If your pinched nerve has been caused by a new exercise routine, it will probably settle down in a couple of weeks – as long as you take the precautions needed to correct the issue.
If the pinched nerve has lingered in the background for a while, this suggests it might have been caused by poor posture or excess body weight.
These factors can take longer to correct, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with the pinched nerve forever. If you are unable to deal with the symptoms yourself, visiting a podiatrist, chiropractor or doctor is recommended.