Toenails Useless, but They Can Cause Plenty of Problems, Podiatrist Says

<i> Stef Donev is a free-lance writer with special interest in health and science. He is based in Simi Valley, Calif. </i>

If it weren’t for shoes, toenails would be totally useless. But your shoes give the hard, horny, lifeless growths something to do--protect your sensitive toe-tops from constantly rubbing against your shoe-tops.

Aesthetically speaking, however, your toenails are available for painting and for use as decorations for your feet.

But in terms of analyzing toenail potential, that is about all those claw-like growths are good for, according to Lefroy Virgil, president of the British Columbia Podiatry Assn.

“After all,” the Richmond, Canada, podiatrist adds, “you can use your fingernails to take the skin off an orange, but there’s nothing for your toenails to do--except maybe poke holes in your socks.”


They don’t even protect you from stubbing your toe. While short toenails don’t stick out in front of the toe like a protective bumper, long toenails are even worse, since any impact is likely to lift the toenail off the toe.

But just because they are useless doesn’t mean they are content to just sit there like the proverbial bump on a log. They can also hurt a lot even when you don’t bump them.

About 30% of the general population suffers from some sort of foot problem. These include varying degrees of club foot, a condition in which the foot is misshapen.

Corns are another common problem. Persistent corns are usually caused by the skin of the toe being squeezed between tight shoes and a toe bone with a rough edge or prominence on it. If wearing comfortable shoes won’t solve the problem, it can now be cured with “minimal incision surgery. We make an incision so small you usually don’t even need a stitch to sew it up afterwards. Then, we file the rough edge off the toe bone.”

Bunions are also a major problem and are usually hereditary. “To put it simply,” Virgil explained, “the toe drifts. It has been knocked off the end of the bone.” As with most foot problems, the first recommendation is good shoes. But if it is a severe case, “there are about 15 different types of corrective surgery.”

As far as flat feet are concerned, “get good shoes with a good arch support.”

Then come toenails.

As with most other foot problems, most toenail problems are self-inflicted.

“Feet,” explained Virgil, “were not really designed for socks and shoes.” They were especially not designed for a lot of the “high-fashion shoes that are so popular today, especially with young women.”

Not only can these shoes cramp, twist and squeeze your feet painfully out of shape, cause painful corns and foot-deforming bunions, they can even affect the way your toenails grow.

The most common toenail problem is an ingrown toenail. That is when the sides of a toenail--usually on the big toe--curve into and dig into the flesh instead of growing straight out.

While some people are born with chronically ingrown toenails, most are self-inflicted and due either to the shoes we wear, the way we cut our toenails--or both.

Left untreated, ingrown toenails cause discomfort that can quickly turn into pain and infection.

“Years ago,” according to Virgil, “when a person had chronically ingrown toenails, they had to remove them.

“Now we perform a root canal. We remove the part of the toenail causing the trouble, and the section of the root that it grows from.”

So if there is a strip of your toenail a fraction of an inch wide that is constantly causing an ingrown nail, that fraction-of-an-inch strip is permanently removed, leaving you with a slightly narrower toenail instead of a permanently painful and infected toe.

“It’s a very simple office procedure. It’s done one day, and the patient is walking around comfortably in shoes the next day.”

Ingrown toenails can be self-inflicted through tight shoes or improperly cut nails.

“If you cut them too short, especially on the sides of the toes, or dig into the sides of your toenails, you leave little rough edges of nails that will hook into the flesh, and you create your own ingrown nail.”

Virgil recommends cutting toenails straight across.

Flat-headed toenails, even when properly painted, might not look fashionable while wearing sandals or open-toed shoes, but they won’t look--or be--painful or infected, either. He also recommends that you forgo stylishly tight shoes.

On the subject of shoes, Virgil says that people like TV actress Cybill Shepherd of"Moonlighting” fame, who wear athletic shoes whenever possible--even while dressed formally--have the right idea.

“Athletic shoes, as a rule, are better made than other shoes, and more effort and research are put into athletic shoes.”

Even though he feels that the proprieties of his profession dictate that he wear “nice oxford shoes--with a built-in arch support--at the office, at home I wear a good athletic shoe.”

Although cutting toenails improperly causes a lot of problems, so does not cutting them at all.

“If you were to never cut them, they would curve down and follow the toes. It would get pretty uncomfortable and dirty.”

But not all toenail injuries are self-inflicted or inherited. Accidents happen.

If something falls on your toenail, injuring the toe beneath it, a blood blister could form there that might require having a doctor lance it to relieve the painful pressure it can cause. In some cases, the toenail could fall off. Luckily, they grow back.

But if something falls just behind your nail, “and damages the root, you can wind up with a very thick, hardened and deformed toe.”

That, he adds, can be a permanent condition leaving you not only with useless toenails, but with ugly ones to boot.