Although your feet have a very important job in helping you get around regularly, you don’t notice much about them unless you use them or take good care of them. But when your feet itch, it’s hard to think about anything else.
Itchy feet isn’t a medical term, but doctors know exactly what it means. This can manifest itself in several ways, says Melissa Lockwood, DPM, a podiatrist at Heartland Foot & Ankle Associates in Bloomington, Illinois. “The leg may feel like it’s asleep and you’re trying to wake it up, or it may feel like your leg is completely numb,” she adds. “It can be very painful and burning at times.”
This can really vary from person to person. “I find some patients describe it as pins and needles, while others feel it’s like a buzzing or burning sensation,” says Ilan Danan, MD, a sports neurologist and pain management specialist at the Sports Neurology and Pain Management Center in Cedars. -Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, Los Angeles, California.
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If you have itchy feet and it goes away, it’s probably just one of those things. But if your symptoms don’t go away, if they go away and come back, or if you have certain health conditions like diabetes and your feet are itchy, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for a checkup, says Suhail Dhib-Jalbut, MD, professor and chairman of neurology at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Itchy feet don’t necessarily mean you have a medical condition—it can sometimes be caused by something as simple as sitting on your feet in an odd position, Dr. Danan says. But several conditions can cause your feet to itch. Keep these on your radar.
Meet the experts: Melissa Lockwood, DPM, is a pediatrician with over 15 years of experience. He has received several awards, including the Ohio Midred Kaufman Memorial Award for excellence in orthopedics and biomechanics.
Ilan Danan, MD, is a sports neurologist and interventional pain management physician. He is an active member of several professional organizations, including the American Academy of Neurology and the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.
1. Diabetes mellitus
Diabetes occurs when blood glucose (blood sugar) is too high. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), it affects approximately 30.3 million people in the United States.
“High blood sugar can damage nerve fibers, but it can also affect the small blood vessels that feed peripheral nerves.” Dhib-Jalbut explains. (BTW, peripheral nerves are the nerves outside your brain and spinal cord.) This can make it harder for your nerve fibers to transmit signals, causing tingling sensations.
Other symptoms, according to the NIDDK, may include:
- increased thirst and urination
- hunger increased
- to be tired
- blurred vision
- numbness or tingling in the feet or hands
- non-healing wounds
- unexplained weight loss
If it’s caught early enough and your blood sugar is controlled, you may be able to correct the itching. But if you leave it too long, Dr. Danan says permanent nerve damage is possible.
2. Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system. When someone has MS, their body’s immune system targets the protective sheath that covers nerves called myelin. This can lead to a range of symptoms including itching, muscle weakness and fatigue.
“When the myelin sheath isn’t working, or in the way it should be, it can cause itchiness,” says Dr. Lockwood says. MS cannot be cured, but the right treatment, such as biologic medications, can help control symptoms.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, hypothyroidism is when your thyroid gland doesn’t make or release thyroid hormones into your bloodstream. This can slow down your metabolism and lead to symptoms of fatigue, weight gain, and intolerance to cold temperatures.
Tingling in your legs due to hypothyroidism “may be caused by swelling of the tissue putting pressure on the nerve fibers,” says Dr. Dhib-Jalbut says. Hypothyroidism is usually treated by using a drug called levothyroxine, which increases the amount of thyroid hormone your body produces, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
4. Tarsal tunnel syndrome
Tarsal tunnel syndrome is basically like carpal tunnel syndrome, but for your feet, Dr. Lockwood says. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, this condition is caused by compression of the posterior tibial nerve (located in your leg) and can cause symptoms such as pain, tingling, or numbness in your leg.
Treatment includes taking anti-inflammatory medications or steroid injections into the tarsal tunnel to reduce pressure and swelling. In severe cases, surgery may be required.
5. Kidney failure
According to the Mayo Clinic, kidney failure means that most of the kidney’s function has been lost. At this point, your kidneys are unable to filter waste products from your blood, and your blood chemistry may become unbalanced.
Symptoms — other than tingling in your legs — may include urinating less than usual, fluid retention, shortness of breath and weakness, the Mayo Clinic says. Chronic kidney failure “can damage nerve fibers” and cause itchy feet, Dr. Dhib-Jalbut says. Treatment usually includes IV fluids, medications to control blood potassium, and dialysis to remove toxins from your blood.
6. Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. This can cause symptoms such as joint pain and swelling. About 1.3 million people in the United States have RA, according to the American College of Rheumatology.
Rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation around nerve tissue and cause nerve compression, Dr. Dhib-Jalbut says. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
Lupus is a chronic disease that causes inflammation and pain in any part of your body. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, about 1.5 million Americans are affected by the disease. It usually affects the skin, joints and internal organs and can cause a variety of symptoms.
The cause of itchy feet with lupus is similar to rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Dhib-Jalbut says. Lupus is treated with a number of medications, including corticosteroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and immunosuppressive drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to the CDC, shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus (the same virus that causes chickenpox). After you recover from chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in your body, but can reactivate later and cause swelling.
Shingles is a rash that appears on one side of your body and can cause pain, itching, or burning in that area. “It’s an attack on the nerves,” said the doctor. Danan points out that even after you’ve recovered, your feet may still feel itchy or burning. Shingles is treated with antiviral drugs such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir.
9. Alcoholic neuropathy
Alcoholic neuropathy is nerve damage caused by too much drinking. This can cause tingling or numbness in the hands, arms, legs, and feet. “The mechanism is not well understood, but it may involve the direct toxic effect of alcohol on nerve fibers,” says Dr. Dhib-Jalbut.
“Usually, these symptoms are irreversible,” said Dr. Lockwood says. “Once you work that out, you come to a new base.”
10. Charcot-Marie toothache
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) is a group of rare diseases that damage the peripheral nerves. People with CMT typically develop progressive muscle weakness and may have small, weak muscles, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can cause numbness, muscle spasms and difficulty walking.
CMT “affects the structure and function of peripheral nerves,” leading to symptoms such as tingling, Dr. Dhib-Jalbut says. There is no cure for CMT, but patients can get help with medications to help with nerve pain, along with using orthotics to help them walk.
Corinne Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general health, sexual health, and relationship and lifestyle trends, whose work appears in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor and more. He has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to one day own a tea-pig taco truck.