What is a Corn and what causes it? Everything you need to know.
Corns are rough patches of skin most commonly caused by friction or pressure due to ill-fitting footwear or unfamiliar exercise. Corns are not dangerous, but can cause discomfort or pain. In case of severe inflammation or pain, you should seek medical advice immediately, otherwise corns can easily be treated and even prevented by avoiding the sources of local irritation as well as by taking better care of your feet.
Who suffers from corns?
Corns are one of the most common foot problems . We often take our feet for granted, and therefore unfortunately many of us neglect foot care and often ignore foot problems until they become too severe. Certain groups of people are more prone to developing corns, these include people with foot abnormalities (flat-footed, abnormal gait) or deformities (bunions, hammer toe), people with less elastic skin and people with jobs that require a lot of time on their feet (e.g. nurses, waiters, mail carriers or flight attendants) . Women are more likely to have corns than men. This is mainly due to differences in the anatomy of male and female feet and because women are more likely to wear ill-fitting footwear than men .
Do I have corns?
You most likely have a corn, if:
- You have raised, hardened bumps or rough patches of skin on your feet
- The skin which is on these patches is yellow, waxy or flaky
- The patch is sensitive to touch or causes pain when wearing footwear.
The rough patches are most often found on the toes, but can also appear on the sole of the foot or the heel. The most common places are the toes, just below the nail bed, between the toes or on the sides and on the toe joints, basically anywhere the skin of the foot is in contact with either footwear or itself (between toes). You might also have corns without having noticed them yet. Small corns often remain unnoticed as they do not cause irritation.
What exactly are corns?
Corns are hard patches of dead skin, which are usually relatively small and defined. The area around the corn is often irritated or inflamed. In general, corns form on the bony, knobby parts of the foot, but can also appear on other parts of the body which are exposed to local irritation by friction or pressure, such as the hands or knees.
Common medical terms for corn are clavus or heloma. Corns are distinguished by hard corns (heloma durum) and soft corns (heloma molle), which commonly differ in their location. Hard corns usually appear on hard, dry and flat areas of skin, while soft corns are often found between the toes, where they stay soft due to the moisture provided by sweat or bad drying habits. For both types of corns, however, the center is thicker and firmer than the surrounding skin. Their shape is cone-like, with a broad top and a pointy bottom. When this pointy bottom is pressed on the underlying layers of skin, irritation, inflammation or even ulceration may occur, which causes the discomfort or pain you might experience.
How do corns form?
The outer layer of your skin is mainly composed of cells called keratinocytes. These are special skin cells that produce keratin, a substance that forms a tough structure. This structure helps protect your body against environmental influences, such as heat, UV radiation or infections. Corns are the result of an increased production of keratin, medically called hyperkeratosis, which is your body’s way of protecting itself from friction or pressure.
Why do I have corns?
A corn is caused by your body’s protective response to various external factors, for example ill-fitting footwear, unfamiliar exercise or prolonged periods of standing. If you are wearing shoes that are too tight, too loose, too high or have badly placed seams, this might be the cause of your corns. Types of shoes not adapted for long time wear include high heels, pointed-toe heels, and high arched boots. Also badly fitting socks, no socks or no foot-wear at all can cause corns. This is why both women and men are susceptible to corns.
Even if you are wearing well-fitted and adapted footwear, repetitive actions, such as exercise, walking or standing at work might cause corns. Professions with a high risk of developing corns include mail delivery, nursing, waiting or attending flights.
Other risk factors might be genetic or acquired, for example by trauma or aging. These include bunions, hammertoe or deformities of the feet as well as an abnormal gait. Since the skin becomes less plump with age and loses its fatty padding, the formation of corns, particularly under the feet, becomes more frequent.
What to do when I have corns?
Corns are not dangerous, but can cause discomfort or pain, due to the irritation or inflammation caused by the pressure on the underlying skin. They can be easily treated by filing or scraping of the corn in order to reduce pressure, or by applying specialist bandages, such as Compeed® Advanced Corn Care, which cushions the corn. These treatments will immediately relieve the pressure, but it will take about two to four weeks for the corn to disappear. If the source of pressure that caused the corn remains, the corn will generally return. In order to prevent corns, or their recurrence, it is important to avoid unusual pressure, as well as to take care of your feet.
When should I seek medical advice?
Although corns are not dangerous, they can cause irritation, inflammation or even ulceration. If you experience severe inflammation or pain, you should seek medical advice. If you have insensitive skin due to poor circulation, diabetes or nerve damage, you should also consult a doctor before treating your corns.
You can also consult a doctor if you are unsure whether you have a corn.
If you are concerned about the frequency of reoccurring corns, you might want to visit a doctor or podiatrist in order to rule out or detect foot abnormalities, such as deformities, structural abnormalities of the bones, poor bone alignment or an abnormal gait. In these cases a specific padding or corrective shoe insert might help you to prevent corns from reappearing, or, in rare cases, surgery might be necessary.
If you want to find out more about how to treat your corns, keep on reading here.
If you want to find out more about preventing corns from forming, click here.
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McCanick AM. A Study Examining the Occurrence of Corns and Calluses in Males and Females. 2006 ; 1 : 10.
Frey C. Foot Health and Shoewear for Women: Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 2000 ; 372 : 32–44.