How to Treat Cracked Heels

February 9, 2024

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Cracked heels, also known as heel fissures, are a common foot problem characterized by dry, thick, rough skin on the heel and sides of the foot. If left untreated, cracked heels can worsen over time, leading to pain, discomfort, risk of infection, and impaired mobility. Fortunately, there are many effective home treatments and preventative care tips to help alleviate this frustrating condition.

A Prevalent Issue with Serious Implications

While they may seem like just a superficial nuisance, cracked heels should not be taken lightly. Given the amount of pressure and wear the feet endure on a daily basis, open wounds on the heels can have implications for your overall health and quality of life. Fissures that cut through multiple layers of skin put you at increased risk for:

  • Pain and discomfort while walking or standing
  • Inflammation and possible infection of the open cracks
  • Impaired mobility due to heel pain
  • Complications from diabetes or other medical conditions

Additionally, those who neglect basic foot hygiene and moisturizing tend to experience more severe heel damage over time:

  • 82% of people with cracked heels do not moisturize their feet daily
  • 75% of people with diabetes will experience cracked heels
  • Up to 5 layers of skin can be lost with deep heel fissures

Clearly, adopting a proactive foot care regimen is critical for preventing painful heel complications down the road.

Key Causes of Cracked Heels

Dry, thickened skin on the bottoms and sides of the feet is the leading cause of heel fissures. While xerosis (abnormal skin dryness) tends to increase with age, there are numerous factors that can contribute to excessively dried out heels:

Common Causes

  • Age and hormonal changes
  • Genetics
  • Seasonal dry weather
  • Frequent hot showers or baths
  • Aggressive exfoliation
  • Going barefoot
  • Infrequent moisturizing
  • Certain medical conditions

Medical Conditions Linked to Cracked Heels

  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Athlete’s foot

Additionally, ill-fitting shoes that provide inadequate support and cushioning can worsen existing heel cracks. Pressure from high heels, flats without arch support, or walking barefoot places excess stress on the heels that can expand fissures.

While environmental and lifestyle factors play a key role, individuals over the age of 60 tend to show increased susceptibility to dry, cracked skin – especially in the winter when humidity levels plummet.

Hormonal changes, slower cell regeneration, reduced circulation, and thinning fat pads on the heels leave aging skin more prone to excessive dryness and subsequent cracking. Diabetes presents similar added risk due to its propensity to cause poor blood circulation and nerve damage in the feet.

Clearing Up Common Misconceptions

There are several pervasive myths regarding what causes dried, cracked heels and how to treat them. Here is some accurate information to help dispel these misconceptions:

Myth: Cracked heels are just a cosmetic issue and not medically concerning.

Fact: Heel fissures that cut deep into multiple layers of skin carry health risks, such as pain, inflammation, infection, impaired mobility, and complications with certain medical conditions.

Myth: Moisturizing foot cream is the only treatment needed to heal cracks.

Fact: While moisturizer does rehydrate dried skin, additional exfoliation, hydration, padding, and medical care may also be needed for severe or chronic fissures.

Myth: Athlete’s foot causes skin cracking on the heels and soles.

Fact: Heel cracks themselves do not stem from the athlete’s foot fungus. However, the infection can thrive in the warm, moist environment of open fissures.

Myth: There is no way to prevent cracked heels from recurring annually.

Fact: Basic foot care and hydration techniques reduce the frequency and intensity of heel fissures year after year. While seasonality may still play a role, prevention helps better control symptoms.

Arm yourself with the proper knowledge before attempting to treat your cracked heels. Now that we have covered the critical risks linked to negligent care, let’s explore the most effective treatment options currently available.

Top At-Home Remedies for Cracked Heels

While podiatrist-administered interventions might provide the strongest results, visiting a specialist is not financially feasible for everyone. Thankfully, advanced over-the-counter heel repair products produce dramatic improvements these days without the medical price tag.

1. Soften Skin with a Foot Soak

One of the easiest and most affordable ways to combat calluses, corns, and cracks on the feet is through daily soaking. Not only does the warm water instantly soften and hydrate parched skin, but the moisture helps prepare your heels for deeper absorption of the moisturizers and exfoliants to follow.

Try adding these soothing ingredients to your foot bath:

  • Natural oils like coconut, olive, almond, or emu oil
  • Anti-bacterial Epsom salt or sea salt
  • Exfoliating baking soda or oatmeal
  • Anti-inflammatory and moisturizing aloe vera gel

Soak feet for 15-20 minutes nightly to accelerate skin cell turnover and sloughing of dead tissue around fissures. Just be sure to thoroughly clean and dry your feet afterward to prevent any residue from the bath creating further moisture damage.

2. Exfoliate Buildup Gently But Effectively

While scrubbing aggressively at thick calluses with pumice stones or abrasive scrubs may seem like the quickest route to peeling skin and clearing cracks, this excessive exfoliation actually causes more harm in the long run. People with diabetes face increased complications from tearing at heel tissue too forcefully.

The healthiest methods for sloughing off dead, flaky skin involve softening the calluses first and gently brushing away debris to encourage new cell growth underneath:

  • Use a callus softener or acid peel weekly: Applying products formulated with lactic, glycolic, or salicylic acid helps breakdown callus tissue without digging into healthy skin.
  • Try an electric callus remover: These rechargeable, ergonomic devices use rotating mineral rollers and adjustable pressure settings to buff away dead cells smoothly and evenly across the heels and balls of the feet. Models with dual speeds work well for both callused and sensitive areas.
  • Buff gently with a pumice stone or foot file: After showering is the ideal time for light buffing when the steam has softened rough spots. Gently glide the exfoliating stone or file across clean skin using circular motions. Avoid applying excess pressure or scraping too aggressively at cracks.

Regular, gentle sloughing followed by intensive moisturizing pulls double-duty – keeping cracks from worsening while stimulating fresh cell regeneration.

3. Deeply Hydrate with Dense Creams

While a decent body lotion may suffice for dry elbows and knees, cracked heels require specialty formulated moisturizers with dense textures, occlusive hydrators, exfoliants, and healing agents.

Look for the following thick, ultra-hydrating ingredients when selecting foot creams:

  • Shea butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Glycerin
  • Lanolin
  • Mineral oil
  • Dimethicone

Many pharmacy brands now offer affordable heel balms packed with these reparative ingredients to target extreme foot xerosis. Natural formulas derived from plants and essential oils also nurture cracked skin with nourishing vitamins and antioxidants.

Apply the thickest foot cream you can find to clean, dry heels and put on a fresh pair of breathable cotton socks overnight. The covering helps the formula absorb deeper and prevents transfer onto sheets. In the morning, use a pumice stone while showering to slough away some of the softened tissue before applying moisturizer again.

4. Seal in Moisture with Hydrating Sock Liners

Once you have completed your evening skin softening and hydrating routine, adding an extra protective layer against moisture evaporation can make a tremendous difference in healing time.

Gel heel cups, moisture-wicking fabric covers, and silicone sock liners all help prevent hydrating creams and salves from rubbing off onto bedsheets overnight. The seal also keeps hydration locked into the skin through friction reduction and extended exposure time.

Specialized dry skin therapy socks with acrylic and spandex blends conform snuggly to the feet while retaining body heat to open pores and encourage deeper cream penetration. Padding at the heels and balls of feet also prevents painful cracks and pressure sores. Those dealing with diabetes and other circulatory conditions find daily use reduces complications.

5. Wear Footwear with Arch Support and Padding

Just as athletic shoes are intentionally designed for sport-specific ankle and arch stability, therapeutic footwear engineering focuses on realigning the feet to alleviate pain and pressure on sore spots.

When dealing with deep heel cracks, look for these specialized features:

  • Contoured, molded soles to follow the natural shape of feet with raised arch reinforcement
  • Plush cushioning and EVA midsoles at the heel strike zone
  • Moisture-wicking lining to discourage inner shoe fungus and bacteria
  • Roomy toe boxes to eliminate friction blisters
  • Stretchy uppers that move with the foot to prevent uncomfortable rubbing

While flip flops and flats seem convenient, choosing footwear without proper support often expands existing cracks and irritates the raw fissures. Those with diabetes should be particularly vigilant about daily shoes minimizing pressure and friction.

When to Seek Professional Medical Care

For those with chronic conditions causing poor circulation or nerve damage in the lower limbs, relying solely on over-the-counter heel repair products carries substantial risks of complications. See a podiatrist promptly if you exhibit any of the following signs:

  • Deep heel cracks bleeding or oozing discharge
  • Redness, swelling, warm skin, or pain indicating infection
  • Difficulty walking due to size and tenderness of fissure
  • Fissures failing to respond to 2-3 weeks of at-home hydrating and exfoliating treatments
  • Known neuropathy, vascular disease, or diabetes accompanied by non-healing cracks

To prevent infections from thriving inside open heel wounds, your podiatrist may prescribe topical antibiotic or antifungal ointments alongside recommendations for wound care clinics using electrical stimulation or oxygen therapy devices to accelerate healing.

5 Key Prevention Tips

While heredity plays a part in susceptibility, individuals prone to xerosis and heel fissures are certainly not destined to suffer cracked feet annually. Implementing some basic foot care practices reduces occurrence frequency and intensity of future breakouts:

1. Exfoliate & hydrate skin weekly – Use gentle electric files, acid peels, pumice stones, and intensive foot creams to remove calluses without causing excess irritation while delivering nourishing moisture.

2. Wear moisture-wicking socks – Acrylic and wool blends paired with well-padded shoes help regulate humidity next to the skin and cushion pressure points.

3. Always wear shoes in public spaces – Heels require more support than feet alone can provide. Going barefoot leads to microtraumas and transfer of bacteria into open fissures.

4. Monitor medical conditions closely – Ensuring diseases like diabetes and thyroid disorders remain well controlled greatly reduces associated risks of chronic dried, cracked skin.

5. Use humidifiers during dry seasons– Boosting moisture in the air prevents excessive evaporation from exposed skin that can lead to cracking. Daily temperature and humidity checks help determine optimal settings.

In Conclusion: Caring for Your Feet

Hopefully this guide has revealed that stubborn, painful heel fissures do not have to control your mobility and comfort indefinitely. While hereditary factors play a role in causation, adopting proactive foot care techniques reduces recurrence rate and intensity over the long term.

Healing happens from the inside out – optimizing diet, activity levels, and disease management fortifies skin’s resiliency from within. External preventatives and protective padding then support the renewal process topically. This comprehensive approach helps transform your feet from a frustrating liability into a self-esteem and confidence boosting asset once again.

Give your soles the love and attention they deserve. It makes all the difference.

References

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “7 Home Remedies for Dry, Cracked Feet” MayoClinic.org. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 Aug. 2021. Web. 01 Feb. 2023.
  • American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. “Cracked Heels.” FootHealthFacts.org. American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, Sept. 2021. Web. 01 Feb 2023.
  • Harvard Health Publishing Staff. “Caring for Cracked Heels.” Health.Harvard.edu. Harvard Medical School, Feb 2022. Web 01 Feb 2023.
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