Feet are the heroic workhorses of the human body. They are strong, sophisticated grunt laborers that make the average person’s mobility pretty much entirely possible. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, the average American walks 115,000 miles in a lifetime, and support a human’s entire weight over and over again, step after step, getting you where you’re going with minimal complaint.
And we don’t always treat them so hot either. Women, in particular, wedge their poor feet into all kinds of torture devices, squishing the toes together into a narrow point and elevating the heel to exaggerate the pressure to the front of the foot. So, now and then, a foot sounds the alarm. The dogs bark. And one of the most common causes of foot discomfort is the dreaded corn.
What is a corn?
A corn is the result of the skin’s defenses going a little haywire, or kicking into overdrive due to constant contact. In short, a corn, or clavus, is a patch of dead, built up skin that happens due to continuous pressure or rubbing. The scientific name is heloma, and the technical term for this buildup of dead skin cells is hyperkeratosis. The latter term comes from the substance keratin, or skin cells called keratinocytes, which make up the outer layer of human skin.
Corns typically occur on the feet and hands, and are more common in women, probably because of footwear. They appear as round, flaky or scaly patches, almost like scabs, and are usually pretty small. Corns appear on thin, hairless and smooth parts of the skin, and in feet they commonly appear either on the top, knuckle-y parts of the toes or between the toes.
Normally, a buildup of tissue at a spot where there is a lot of friction would be considered harmless or even beneficial, but in the case of a corn, there is a core of tissue in the middle that is broad on top and comes to a point at the bottom, pointing inward toward the foot. That core jabs into the softer internal tissue of the foot and can be very painful. So corns are not just unsightly and annoying, they really hurt!
A corn is similar to a callus, which is essentially the same phenomenon, medically speaking. The difference is that a callus is broader in shape and size, and typically forms on the heels or pads of the feet and hands. Calluses are actually beneficial, as in the case of a worker’s or guitar player’s hands toughening up from use. A corn is just a specially shaped callus, with the signature core that points into the skin.
There are also two types of corn—hard and soft. You can probably imagine the difference between the two. The hard corn’s center is, yes, hard. This means they are the more painful of the two, and typically show up on the outer parts of the feet and toes, such as places where shoes rub repeatedly. Soft corns are in more protected areas of the foot, and result when moisture from perspiration is trapped in the center, making its core soft. Soft corns often form between the toes.
Corns always form from persistent friction and pressure on a section of the foot, when either the toes rub together or the toes rub against the shoes constantly. Some of the more common external factors include socks that don’t protect the feet well enough, or wearing shoes without socks at all. Another culprit is shoes, socks or stockings that are too tight, especially too tight around the toes. Not surprisingly, women’s shoes, especially high heels, exacerbate this.
The shape of this style of shoe points all of the toes inward into a small, pointed shape. The elevated heel means more of your weight is pressing the toes into this tight little nook, pushing them together, and against the shoe, at even greater pressure. On the other end of the spectrum, shoes that are too loose can cause corns, because the foot can move around too much during walking, rubbing the same sad part of the foot against the inside of the shoe.
Other factors that contribute to corns are the shapes of the feet. Some people have toes that are particularly bony or knuckle-y, meaning when compressed those joints stick out. People with foot abnormalities that cause parts of the toes to rub against the shoes more also often will get corns. This includes people with flat feet, or people who walk and run in an unusual gait. Others at risk are those with thin skin, or people with diabetes.
Treatments For Corns On Feet
First off, if you or someone you know is diabetic, has arterial disease, or neuropathy, consult a physician before doing anything. If you have a bad corn, always ask your doctor for advice.
But there are some home remedies once you’ve developed a corn. All treatments involve removing pressure and/or removing some of the tissue. One simple solution is a store bought corn cushion. These are soft pads with adhesive on one side and hollowed out centers. They go over the corn so the painful area is protected from pressure, and allowed to heal.
To remove some of the built up tissue, one option is to soak the foot in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes to soften the skin, then to very gently sand down the corn using a pumice stone or a soft manicurist’s file. This may take several repetitions before making a big difference. A doctor may also recommend antibiotic creams during corn treatment. One of the risks of home treatment is infection, which is why it’s best to have a physician help or at least advise.
There are also over-the-counter chemical treatments for corns. The most common approach is salicylic acid, either in the form of a patch or a topical solution. This is the same substance that is used for warts and sometimes acne (salicylates are also in painkillers like aspirin).
The most extreme treatment is cutting the sucker off, or to be more accurate, trimming down the outside skin with a scalpel. DON’T DO THIS AT HOME, as it could very likely lead to an infection. Only a doctor should trim down a corn.
The old saying about the ounce of prevention is completely valid when it comes to corns. In fact, since a corn is caused entirely by external factors and isn’t any kind of virus or bacteria, the only way to lastingly treat it is by changing behavior.
The obvious things are the ways to go here. Don’t wear ill-fitting or uncomfortable shoes. Wear well-padded shoes with open toes or a spacious toe section (not loose, just spacious so your toes can move around without too much pressure). You can wear thicker socks, or apply soft material like moleskin to the places that are rubbing. Petroleum jelly or hand cream can also soften up the skin and reduce friction.
Another good trick is rotating footwear. Change the type of shoe you wear on a daily basis so the foot doesn’t endure the same points of pressure on a constant basis. Be sure to change your socks and wash your feet well every day too (do this no matter what, duh). In fact, just take good care of your poor feet in general. They endure so much.
If corns are a serious problem, consider seeing a foot specialist, who can recommend special therapeutic shoes that could correct gait problems. And in the worst cases, if there is a deformity in the feet that can’t be corrected with behavior, foot surgery might be able to remove problematic pieces of bone.