Cracking up

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Treating your feet to a check-up will improve their look and feel. Rosalind Sharpe investigates the options

Any day now you will go shopping for summer sandals and discover that over the winter something horrible has happened, and your feet look more reptilian than human. These hard, scaly, yellowish extremities cannot possibly be put on display in a pair of mules or slingbacks unless steps are taken to beautify them.

One solution is to treat yourself to a pedicure - a cosmetic treatment that involves soaking, massage, removal of hard skin, and nail painting. But a better idea - especially for teachers, who spend a lot of time standing, and need to be up to the occasional PE lesson - might be to visit a chiropodist.

Most of us know that we are supposed to make regular visits to the dentist and the optician, but hardly anyone bothers to have routine check-ups done on their feet. Consequently, our feet are neglected until problems become disabling, by which time treatment may be more complicated than if symptoms had been picked up earlier.

In fact, chiropodists do offer regular check-ups and you don't have to be an OAP to book one. Like the pedicurist, the chiropodist will clip the nails, remove hard skin and apply moisturisers, so your feet will look much better. He or she will also check for ingrown toenails, bunions, veruccas, corns (growths of hard skin on the toes) or deep callouses (similar growths on the soles of the feet), and advise on treatment. Chiropodists can also detect bone misalignments that make walking painful and contribute to ack problems.

Unlike eye tests and dental check-ups, free foot checks have never been available to all as part of the National Health Service. You will have to pay for a check-up, so ask the price when you make an appointment. Beware of unqualified practitioners: look for the initials SRCh, which means the chiropodist has done a three-year degree course in podiatric medicine, or MBChA, denoting membership of a leading qualifying organisation.

Women suffer more foot problems than men, caused, not surprisingly, by the kind of shoes we wear. Chiropodists urge us, without much hope of success, to choose flat shoes rather than high heels; leather rather than plastic; round toes rather than points, and supportive shoes rather than flimsy ones. Above all, shoes should not be too small. Shoes that pinch can cause or exacerbate all the afflictions listed above.

One of the commonest foot problems can be treated at home, however. A cracked heel is agonising. It occurs when the layer of hard skin becomes so thick and inflexible that it splits. The resulting fissures can take days to heal, because the hard skin keeps pulling them open again. The way to treat (and in the long run, prevent) them is to invest in a foot file (a kind of emery board for the feet) and some rich foot cream, and use both zealously - which means several times a week. If cracks develop, treat them promptly with Boots cracked heel cream, for example, or a herbal alternative called Finger and Heel Relief, available by mail order from Potions and Possibilities (tel: 01394 386161).

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