The most common cause of a burning feeling in your feet is nerve damage, often related to diabetes. There are other possible causes though, too. The pain from burning feet can be intermittent or constant and range from mild to severe. Your feet may feel hot, tingling, prickling, or numb. The pain is often worse at night.
Treatment for burning feet will depend on the underlying cause.
Read on to learn more about what causes a burning sensation in the feet and when you should seek help.
The sensation of burning feet can come from a wide range of conditions. It’s important to determine a cause so you can receive treatment. Some causes, such as a foot fungus like athlete’s foot or shoes that are too tight, can be remedied easily. In some cases, the cause is unknown.
1. Diabetic neuropathy
Years of uncontrolled high blood sugar can gradually damage your blood vessels and nerves. High blood sugar reduces the transmission of signals from the nerves. This can affect sensation to various parts of the body, including the feet. High blood sugar also weakens the blood vessel walls that carry oxygen and nutrients to the nerves.
The nerve damage can occur throughout your body. About 60 to 70 percent of people with diabetes have some form of nerve damage, or neuropathy, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Your risk for neuropathy increases if you:
- are obese
- have high blood pressure
- smoke cigarettes
- drink alcohol
When the nerve damage is in your legs and feet, it’s known as peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is the most common type of diabetic neuropathy. This type of neuropathy can cause a burning feeling in your feet. Less frequently, peripheral neuropathy can affect the arms and hands.
Additional symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:
- numbness or tingling in your hands or feet
- a feeling like you’re wearing a tight sock
- sharp, stabbing pains
- weakness or heavy feeling in your legs or arms
- excessive sweating
It’s important to see your doctor if you notice any signs of neuropathy. Controlling your blood sugar can prevent nerve damage or slow its course.
2. Small fiber sensory neuropathy (SFSN)
SFSN is a painful neuropathy that often results in painful burning in the feet. Other symptoms include loss of feeling in the feet and short bursts of pain. It occurs as a result of a loss of the myelin sheath, which covers and protects nerve fibers. Although the cause isn’t known in most cases, diabetes can be involved.
3. Heavy alcohol use
Heavy alcohol use can lead to another type of nerve damage called alcoholic neuropathy. In addition to burning feet, symptoms include:
- muscle weakness, muscle spasms, and loss of muscle function
- urinary and bowel dysfunction
- impaired speech
Stopping alcohol use can help prevent worsening of symptoms. However, some nerve damage may be irreversible.
4. Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT)
CMT is the most common inherited nerve disease. It affects the nerves that control muscles. It’s a progressive disease, meaning symptoms worsen over time. One of its first symptoms is burning, or pins and needles in the feet or hands. Other symptoms include clumsiness and muscle atrophy.
About 1 in every 2,500 people in the United States have CMT, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. It’s named after the three doctors who first described it in 1886. Other names for it are peroneal muscular atrophy and hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy.
5. Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
CRPS occurs in a limb, most commonly after an injury or surgery. It involves nerve damage that affects the signaling from the brain and spine. Symptoms include:
- burning pain
- changes in skin color or texture
CRPS can affect the immune system. It may be influenced by genetics.
Erythromelalgia is a relatively rare disease involving red, hot, and painful feet without a known cause. The severity of the disease varies person to person. Pain can worsen after:
- exposure to heat
7. Nutritional deficiencies
Burning feet caused by malnutrition was more common in the past, but it’s still seen in areas that experience famine or other disasters. During World War II, an estimated one-third of American prisoners of war in the Pacific experienced burning feet syndrome caused by malnutrition.
In today’s population, especially among the elderly, nerve damage may be related to deficiencies in:
These vitamin B deficiencies can cause burning feet and muscle coordination problems.
Anemia, a deficiency in healthy red blood cells, may also be due to vitamin B deficiencies. Other symptoms of vitamin deficiency anemia include fatigue, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
An underactive thyroid changes the balance of hormones in your body. This can cause swelling that puts pressure on your nerves. In addition to burning feet, symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weight gain, and dry skin.
9. Infectious diseases
Burning feet can be one of many symptoms of various infections, including:
Ask your doctor about getting tested if you think you have an infection and are experiencing burning in your feet.
10. Athlete’s foot
Athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection often seen in athletes. Also known as tinea pedis, it can also affect the toenails and hands.
One of the most common symptoms of athlete’s foot is a burning, tingling, or itching sensation between the toes or on the soles of the feet. You may also experience:
- itchy blisters on the feet
- cracking and peeling skin between the toes or on the soles of the feet
- dry skin on the sides or soles of the feet
- raw skin on the feet
- toenails that pull away from the nail bed, or appear discolored, thick, and crumbly
11. Kidney disease
When your kidneys stop functioning properly, toxins build up in your blood. This can lead to swelling and itching of feet. It can also cause:
- reduced urine output
- unexplained shortness of breath
12. Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
PAD involves a narrowing of the arteries that bring blood to the legs and feet. The symptoms can be similar to those of peripheral neuropathy, including burning feet and legs. The pain is often brought on by walking or exercising.
13. Tarsal tunnel syndrome
Tarsal tunnel syndrome refers to a condition where the nerve that runs from the ankle to the foot is squeezed because of swelling or an injury. This can lead to pain and burning in the foot. The pain may extend up the leg.
It’s important to get early treatment for this condition before the nerve damage becomes permanent.
14. Toxin exposure
Exposure to heavy metals and other industrial chemicals over long periods can lead to peripheral neuropathy symptoms. Some medications used to treat certain conditions, like HIV or seizures, can also produce nerve damage.
Therapeutic chemicals used to kill cancer cells may have side effects, including peripheral neuropathy. Other nervous and muscular systems side effects of chemotherapy may include:
- tired, achy, or shaky feeling in the muscles
- slowed down reflexes or motor skills
- balance and coordination problems
- muscle weakness
Diagnosing burning in feet
See your doctor if you have painful, burning feet.
Your doctor will first conduct a physical exam. A physical exam can indicate:
- structural problems in your feet or legs
- fungal infection
- reddened or pale skin
- lack of feeling or sensation
Your doctor will then ask you about your medical history, including any medications you’re taking. They’ll ask you when your symptoms occur and how long they last.
Your doctor will likely test for diabetes, since it’s one of the most common causes of burning feet. They’ll also want to know if you have a history of excess alcohol use, as this is another common cause for this symptom. They may also order blood tests for:
Imaging tests may be ordered if tarsal tunnel syndrome is suspected. Your doctor may look at your shoes and watch you walk to see if you have tight or ill-fitting shoes as well.
Your doctor will ask about other symptoms to determine if an infection or injury is involved.
Treatment options for burning feet
Treatment for burning feet depends on the underlying cause.
Often, treatment can be straightforward. You may need:
- an antifungal prescription for athlete’s foot
- more comfortable shoes
- a corrective insert in your shoes
- vitamin B supplements
- thyroid supplements
If diabetes is involved, you may need to change your diet or medications. Your doctor may also prescribe drugs to help with nerve pain.
For severe nerve pain, nerve stimulation may help, such as:
- electrical nerve stimulation
- magnetic therapy
- laser therapy
- light therapy
Research is also ongoing for other new pain therapies.
Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, may help some people.
Home remedies for pain relief
It’s important to see your doctor about this type of pain. But there are some things you can try at home for temporary relief:
- Soak your feet in cold water or ice baths for a few minutes. However, this isn’t recommended for people with erythromelalgia. It may damage their skin.
- Soak your feet in Epsom salts or an apple cider solution. If you have diabetes, ask your doctor before trying this remedy.
- Take a turmeric supplement. The curcumin in turmeric may provide relief for nerve pain. Curcumin is known to have protective anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial effects. It’s also thought to help neurological symptoms.
- Apply a topical cream that contains lidocaine or capsaicin. A homemade ginger or turmeric solution may work, too. One study found that a lidocaine patch was very effective in relieving pain from erythromelalgia.
- Massage your foot to help improve blood flow and circulation.
What’s the outlook?
The feeling that your feet are burning can cause pain that ranges from mild and intermittent to life-disrupting and chronic. It’s important to work with your doctor to identify and treat the underlying cause. If the cause is nerve damage, it may be permanent in some cases, but treatments are available to prevent further damage.