Foot Pain When You Wake Up? Here's What Your Body's Trying to Tell You

Foot pain when you wake up could be a sign that you wore the wrong shoes the day before.
Image Credit: onsuda/iStock/GettyImages

The first step out of bed shouldn't be agony, but, unfortunately for many, foot stiffness, soreness and pain are a usual part of the morning routine.

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From average aches to chronic conditions, physical therapist Tyler Nightingale, DPT, discusses five common causes for the discomfort in your dogs at daybreak, plus what you can do to ease the a.m. pain.

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1. You’re Not Getting Enough Blood Flow

Bedtime is the only time of day when you're not moving your feet or putting any weight on them. But here's the thing: "Joints, tendons and muscles crave movement, so a lack of that during a night of sleep will result in a feeling of stiffness the next day," Nightingale says.

Once you begin to move, you increase the blood flow to your feet, which also heats the tissues and improves elasticity and mobility, Nightingale explains.

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The fix​: Get moving. "Most morning stiffness resolves after walking around for a few minutes," Nightingale says.

2. You Put Too Much Stress on Your Feet the Day Before

Often, the amount of soreness you feel in the morning links back to the degree of stress your feet underwent the day before.

"It's important to think about exercise of any kind, even something as simple as walking, as a stimulus that causes fatigue," Nightingale says.

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That's to say, if your feet are sore and stiff the day after a strenuous sweat session, you might be experiencing delayed-onset muscle soreness, which is "the mildest form of fatigue-induced micro-tearing," Nightingale says.

When this overloading happens, your body tries to make repairs at night when your feet are at rest.

"Whether you've done a tough workout, ran 10 miles or have an injury like plantar fasciitis [more on this later], your body is working hard while you sleep to heal," Nightingale says.

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Your body repairs these micro-tears "by laying down collagen fibers, which are stiff and rigid before they are better integrated as you move," he explains.

In other words, the healing process itself may also contribute to achiness in your feet.

The fix:​ If delayed-onset muscle soreness is the source of your stiffness, don't fret. Your body typically repairs itself within 24 to 72 hours, Nightingale says.

Still, pay attention to your pain. If your morning discomfort is recurrent, it may be a sign that you're overworking your feet, which can lead to injury.

To avoid this, make sure you balance activity with recovery: "Foam rolling, stretching, proper sleep and nutrition are all ways that you can accelerate the [healing] process," Nightingale says.

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3. You Have an Injury

"Too much loading to any tissue can lead to micro-tearing," which, over time, can result in pain and injury, Nightingale says.

Frequent foot pain in the morning is one of the first signals that you're on the path to a more serious issue or an overuse injury like chronic tendinopathy, which causes long-term inflammation, irritation or impairment of the tendons, he says.

One form of tendinopathy called plantar fasciitis is one of the most common culprits of heel pain, according to the Northshore University Health System. This condition happens when you strain and inflame the plantar fascia, a band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes.

The fix:​ "Chronic issues need chronic solutions," Nightingale says. To help diminish discomfort, try to reduce activities that produce pain in your feet, and stretch daily.

If your pain persists, you might need to seek help from a doctor or physical therapist who can assist you with a proper treatment plan.

"The best way to fix a long-standing tendon issue is to take a slow and steady approach to loading the tissue to promote healing, like a slow-graded walking program or a specific loaded exercise program [targeted] to one particular joint," Nightingale says.

4. You Have Arthritis

Chronic foot pain, stiffness and swelling can also result from joint inflammation and indicate arthritis.

Osteoarthritis — aka "wear and tear" arthritis, the most common type — is usually related to aging, but other factors can increase your risk, such as joint injury, obesity, genetics and anatomic issues such as joint shape and alignment, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

For a proper diagnosis, you should see a medical professional.

The fix:​ To reduce the stress on your feet, shift from doing high-impact activities (like jogging or tennis) to lower-impact activities (like swimming or cycling), according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Maintaining a healthy weight will also help lessen stress on the joints, producing less pain and better function, while physical therapy may improve your flexibility and range of motion and strengthen the muscles in your feet, per the AAOS.

Plus, your doctor may recommend you wear custom-made shoes or orthotics (shoe inserts), which may decrease pressure on your feet and reduce your pain.

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5. You’re Wearing the Wrong Shoes

Another reason your feet might be feeling funky first thing in the morning? Ill-fitting shoes.

A review published July 2018 in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research found that incorrectly fitted footwear was associated with foot pain and foot disorders. What's more, sporting shoes that don't fit properly was quite common: Between 63 and 73 percent of participants wore shoes that did not suit either the width or length of their feet.

The fix:​ Get a new pair of shoes that fit you right. Here are some tips to help you select comfy shoes, according to Harvard Health Publishing:

  • Because your foot naturally expands during the day, go shoe shopping during the afternoon.
  • When trying on shoes, always wear the same type of socks to the store that you plan to wear with the shoes.
  • Every time you buy new shoes, ask a salesperson to measure both of your feet. If one foot is larger, opt for a size that fits the bigger foot.
  • When you stand in the shoes, make sure you have a little wiggle room at the toes. Ideally, you should have about a half-inch of space between your longest toe and the end of the shoe.
  • Take a quick walk around the store in the shoes. If they fit snugly, pinch or slip off, they're not the right fit.
  • Shoe size — which can vary from one manufacturer to the next — doesn't always tell the whole story. Use your own comfort level to judge.
  • The width of a shoe is equally as important as the length. If the ball of your foot feels squished, ask if the shoe comes in a wider size.

Choosing shoes with good arch support and a cushioned sole can also be helpful, according to the Northshore University Health System.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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