What is a Morton’s neuroma?

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Do you often feel a sharp pain in the ball of your foot when you’re walking? Or do your toes sometimes get numb or tingly — especially when you’re wearing tight shoes? These can all be signs that you have a Morton’s neuroma.

Despite the pain it can cause, a Morton’s neuroma typically has no visible symptoms. You won’t notice a lump, bump or discoloration in the area that hurts. The pain, burning or tingling sensations result from a buildup of tissue around a nerve in the ball of your foot.

A Morton’s neuroma affects the nerve between the third and fourth toes. As that nerve swells and thickens, it causes pain. People often describe neuroma pain as feeling like they are stepping on a pebble or have something in their shoe.

A Morton’s neuroma isn’t a tumor. It isn’t cancerous and cannot turn into cancer. But left untreated, it can make every step painful — and potentially lead to permanent nerve damage.

Causes of Morton’s neuromas

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes Morton’s neuromas, but certain things can put you at higher risk for developing one. Because the condition is linked to nerve compression, anything that puts pressure on the ball of your foot or squeezes your toes together can make it worse.

Your choice of footwear is one of the biggest risk factors for developing a neuroma. Shoes that are too narrow in the toe box pinch the toes — and the corresponding nerves. That squeezing irritates the nerve, causing it to swell and eventually build up extra tissue.

High heels (which put more pressure on the balls of your feet) can also contribute to a Morton’s neuroma. Activities that involve a lot of impact on the balls of your feet — such as running or racquet sports — can also irritate those nerves.

How to treat a neuroma at home

A Morton’s neuroma won’t go away on its own. But you can take steps to make it less painful. Important strategies to make your foot hurt less include:

  • Avoid narrow shoes — especially those with a pointy toe. If your toes have to squish together to fit in the shoe, it’s too narrow. That compression not only makes existing neuromas more painful, it also puts you at risk for developing them.
  • Save high heels for special occasions, not for walking and standing in every day.
  • Wear well-cushioned, supportive sneakers for any high-impact activities.
  • Add a shoe pad to the area under the ball of your foot to provide extra padding under the sensitive nerve.
  • Try over-the-counter insoles to add some additional padding and support for your feet.
  • Ice the area to help reduce inflammation if the neuroma is particularly painful after exercise or other activity.

When to see a doctor about a neuroma

If changing your footwear and other self-care techniques aren’t enough to bring you relief, it may be time to see a podiatrist or foot surgeon. There are several treatments — both nonsurgical and surgical — that can help relieve your neuroma pain.

Nonsurgical treatments may include:

  • Custom orthotic insoles
  • Cortisone injections to reduce swelling and relieve pain
  • Injections of medication that stop pain signals from the nerve (nerve ablation)

When less-invasive methods aren’t helping you manage the condition, your doctor may recommend surgery. Surgery is the only method that can permanently treat a Morton’s neuroma. Surgical options include:

  • Neurectomy surgery to remove the affected nerve. Success rates for this procedure are 80% to 95%. Permanent numbness in the toes near the affected nerve is a common side effect of surgery.
  • Decompression of the nerve involves releasing the tissue that has built up around the nerve. This procedure has a similar success rate to a neurectomy, with similar side effects.

If your foot hurts — especially recurring sharp pains — it’s best to have your doctor check it out. Pain similar to that of a neuroma could also be a sign of a stress fracture, arthritis or other serious condition. Your doctor can accurately diagnose if you’re dealing with a neuroma and advise you on how best to treat it.

Take the Next Step

To learn more about neuroma, reach out to your primary care physician.

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