Cracked heels – we all know them, but let’s understand them a bit better. You might have observed an area of dry, hard and thickened skin at the rim of your heel. If you did, it is referred to as a callus. If you leave it unattended, the skin in the area may develop cracks or fissures which lead to cracked heels. This can be unsightly and generally become a nuisance.
Our feet hold up the pressure applied by the weight of our body. The skin overlying the feet is able to withstand this pressure because it is elastic, so it can expand outwards. When the skin is dry, it loses this elasticity and becomes hard. Subsequently, it begins to develop cracks.
What factors lead to cracked heels?
Conditions that cause dryness in the skin of the feet can lead to cracked heels. These include medical conditions like athlete’s foot, diabetes, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, obesity, hypothyroidism, eczema, juvenile plantar dermatosis and similar conditions.
Some individuals are also genetically predisposed to the formation of calluses around their heels, which then lead to cracks. Factors like dry and cold weather conditions, wearing open heel shoes and standing for long periods — especially on hard floors — can lead to the development of cracked heels. Some of these conditions deserve special mention because they are more common than the others.
- Dry skin
Lack of moisture in the skin is a very common cause of cracked heels. The skin around the heel has fewer sweat glands compared to the rest of the feet. As a result, it easily loses its elasticity and become rough, chapped and cracked if deprived of moisture. Regular application of moisturising cream or lotion on the skin of the feet will keep it well hydrated and supple.
Cracked heels respond to specially formulated heel balms containing descaling and water-retaining agents. Some of the thick, hard skin should first be removed by gently rubbing the affected area with a pumice stone before applying the heel balm. In severe cases, cracked heels may require the attention of a podiatrist.
- Athlete’s foot
Athlete’s foot is caused by a mould-like fungus that normally lives on the skin, hair or nails. They begin to grow out of control and cause symptoms if the environment they live in becomes warm and moist. Athlete’s foot is therefore common in people with sweaty feet or those who wear damp socks.
The condition also produces dry, itchy skin commonly observed on the sole of the feet and between the toes. When left untreated, it can cause cracks on the skin of the feet. This may go on to become infected with the formation of blisters. Fortunately, athlete’s foot can be treated with topical antifungal agents obtainable over the counter. More severe cases may require oral antifungal medications.
- Diabetic foot
This is of major concern to diabetic patients who are apt to develop loss of sensation on their feet. It may progress to foot ulcers and subsequently gangrene if untreated. Diabetic patients should therefore pay very close attention to their feet and avoid skin cuts. They should consult a podiatrist early for advice.
People with factors that predispose them to cracked heels should proactively apply moisturising creams or lotions on their feet to hydrate the skin and improve its elasticity. They should also wear shoes that protect and support the pad of the foot and avoid wearing open heel shoes, especially in dry, cold weather. Patients with cracked heels unresponsive to moisturising agents, as well as those diagnosed with medical conditions that increase the possibility of developing cracked heels, should consult a podiatrist for advice as soon as possible.