We see doctors all our lives, so we’re generally pretty familiar with the role of general doctors and when and why it is necessary to see them. But for most people, doctors that specialize in certain areas aren’t as commonly visited. One medical specialty that many people aren’t familiar with is podiatry.
So what is a podiatrist and what do they do? Podiatry is a medical specialization that focuses on the lower legs and the feet. Podiatrists treat foot pain and foot problems, and they undergo focused education and training to provide the best care for complications and injuries related to the lower legs and feet, including general conditions that affect those areas, such as diabetes.
Is a Podiatrist a Real Doctor?
Yes, a podiatrist is a real doctor who is educated and trained to treat patients who have injuries and problems related to their feet and legs. While a podiatrist wouldn’t typically be found in the same type of medical school as a general doctor, they do have their own professional medical associations and medical schools.
Unlike a doctor who would have the title of “MD” (which stands for medical doctor), podiatrists carry the title of “DPM” (which stands for doctor of podiatric medicine).
So what is a podiatrist qualified to do and what is the purpose of podiatric medical care? Like general health care, podiatric medicine is for the purpose of diagnosing and treating patients who have health problems related to their lower legs or feet. They can engage in surgery, prescribe drugs, order X-rays and lab tests, reset broken bones, and more.
What Education and Training do Podiatrists Undergo?
Like other types of doctors, podiatrists are required to begin with a pre-med undergraduate degree. These include science degrees in physics, chemistry, biology, and more. It is most common for a podiatrist to begin with an undergrad in biology.
After undergrad, students then head off to four years of podiatry school. There are nine schools in the US that are officially accredited and recognized by the AMPA, or the American Podiatric Medical Association.
Here, students learn how the muscles, nerves, ligaments, and bones of the lower legs and feet work together to allow movement and proper health. They also learn about injuries and illnesses that affect these areas, and how to best diagnose and treat these foot health conditions.
After graduating from podiatry school, a would-be podiatrist is then required to take up a 3-year residency at a hospital. Working in a hospital setting before working in a focused podiatry clinic allows students to get a better understanding of how to work with other types of doctors, including anesthesiologists, surgeons, pediatricians, and other specialists.
If desired, a final advanced certification in foot and ankle surgery can be earned after their residency.
What Conditions Can a Podiatrist Treat?
If you feel any kind of foot pain or discomfort related to your lower legs or feet, then you can most likely be diagnosed and treated by podiatric medicine. Here are some of the most common reasons why you may visit a podiatrist:
- Hammertoes and bunions: Hammertoes and bunions are issues with your feet bones; a hammertoe is a toe that doesn’t bend properly while a bunion occurs when the joint of the big toe becomes pushed out of place.
- Arthritis: The foot has 33 different joints, meaning it is a prime candidate for arthritis, which may generally be caused by normal wear and tear and inflammation on the joints. Podiatrists may treat arthritis of the foot with orthopedic shoes, drugs, and physical therapy. In the worst cases, this can be treated with surgery. This is also commonly related with sports medicine.
- Heel pain: Heel pain is a common issue that most people may have to deal with at some point, with the most common cause of heel pain being heel spurs (calcium buildup at the bottom of the bone, which is caused by being overweight, badly-fitting shoes, or excessive running). Other causes of heel pain include plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis.
- Sprains and fractures: Sprains and fractures are common around the feet and ankles, particularly when it comes to sports. Podiatrists often work with sports medicine as athletes commonly need specialized care for their foot and ankle problems.
- Nail disorders: Infections are common in the toenails, caused by ingrown toenails or fungus. Nails may need to be properly trimmed or removed when this occurs, which is best done by a podiatrist.
- Growing pains: Children may sometimes experience growing pains in their feet during periods of growth, and require the help of a podiatrist to adjust properly. When a child has flat feet, toes that fail to line up properly, or inward-pointing feet, then a podiatry might recommend braces, insoles, special foot ankle exercises, or surgery.
Why Should I See a Podiatrist Instead of a Regular Doctor?
Many people may find themselves unwilling to see specialty doctors like podiatrists when they can visit their general practitioner instead. The benefit of seeing a podiatrist when you have a clear foot pain or condition related to your lower legs and feet is that you are guaranteed to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment. You also save yourself time, as a general practitioner will most likely refer you to see a podiatrist once they hear about your foot problems.
Simply put, you should search for “a podiatry near me” when you are experiencing the following foot conditions:
- Foot or ankle pain
- Peeling or scaling of the bottom of the foot
- Growths like pimples or warts on the foot
- Cuts or cracks on the foot that won’t heal
- Infected or thick toenail foot problems
How are Podiatrists Different from Orthopedists?
Orthopedists are another kind of doctor that specialize in foot problems, however, unlike podiatrists, orthopedists have the training and authority to treat the rest of the body on top of the foot as opposed to typical podiatric medical health care.
This gives them a more general understanding of musculoskeletal pains and conditions, while podiatric medicine focuses more on foot health conditions like calluses, heel spurs, toenail disorders, and other foot-centric issues.
You should see a podiatrist over an orthopedist when you are still unsure of the exact cause of your foot pain.
Read more: How Do Podiatrists Remove Cracked Heels?