Athletes may have perfect bodies, but their feet are a different story

In the midst of the U.S. Open, the New York Times ran an article about the bunioned and blistered feet of tennis' beautiful stars. The problem extends far beyond tennis players, affecting many who dance and run, as well as those who give their all playing soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey.

The broken, bruised toenails, sprained ankles, fallen arches, bunions and stress fractures are surely a pain, but for those who are passionate about their sport, it's all for the love of the game.

The Times article described one U.S. Open star as having feet that "resemble fresh hamburger" by the time a match is finished.

“I’ve always said the best way a tennis player knows his significant other really loves him is if that person sees his feet and still stays with him,” said former tennis player Justin Gimelstob, quoted by the news source. “No tennis player wants to reveal what’s under those socks.”

Moreover, it seems as though the problem is getting worse. A 1991 U.S. Open finalist told the Times that athletes today move faster, which means harder stopping and more stress on the feet and ankles. This, combined with imbalanced biomechanics, is the kind of motion that often leads to bunions or hammer toe.

Ballet dancers experience the foot conditions as a result of pointe and the shoes that are required for such gravity-defying acts. Runners who pronate or wear improper footwear are prone to bunions and hammer toe due to a lack of support and repeated motion that puts stress on the metatarsal bone. Other sports players experience similar issues relating to landing mechanics and footwear.

So what is an athlete to do? Well, bunion surgery is not a great option. The British Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society reports that the operation often results in a stiff big toe, which may only be a slight drawback to the normal person but can severely affect performance for a dancer or athlete. Additionally, a National Institutes of Health study revealed that the best course of action for people who play sports is conservative treatment. However, when the big toe becomes incongruous with the metatarsal bone, bunion surgery may be the only option.

As a result, athletes who develop bunions or hammer toe – or those at risk of the bony deformity – should invest in bunion splints or orthotics, which have been known to prevent or correct the foot conditions without the need for bunion surgery. Additionally, the devices have been shown to help feet heal properly following a bunion operation.  

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