Fire Afoot: Dealing With Erythromelalgia

Do your feet ever suddenly feel like they are on fire? You could have a rare condition known as erythromelalgia. Here's what you need to know about this infrequent but painful condition.

What Are The Symptoms?

One or both feet will feel extremely hot. The skin will not only feel like it is burning, it will look red as well. It can also feet hot to the touch. The pain may come and go, or it may be constant. While this condition most often occurs in the feet, it can also occur in the hands. For some people, the condition comes on gradually, growing increasingly worse over time, while for others, the onset is sudden.

What Causes Erythromelalgia?

Researchers aren't certain what causes erythromelalgia, but there appears to be an underlying issue with the blood vessels in the feet. The blood vessels don't function as they should, sometimes constricting and other times dilating. This interferes with the steady flow of blood. There is some evidence to suggest that the condition may run in families, but this is not always the case. Sometimes previous foot or ankle injuries can cause residual vessel or nerve damage. 

Related Conditions

Another condition, known as Raynaud's disease, may also present in patients with erythromelalgia, giving further credence to the belief the condition is caused by malfunctioning blood vessels and the body system that controls their operation. Raynaud's disease is also a vasomotor abnormality, but it has the opposite symptoms. Raynaud's disease more frequently occurs in the hands, but it can also occur in the toes.

The extremities become suddenly cold. They will actually become numb and feel cold to the touch, just as if they were really cold, similar to how the feet become truly hot with erythromelalgia. The fingers or toes will also become white, as though there were no blood flowing to the area. As the event passes and the fingers warm back up, it can be painful and cause an unnerving pins and needles feeling. Patients can usually feel a throbbing sensation as blood flow resumes normal functioning.

Peripheral neuropathy may also be present in patients with erythromelalgia. This a group of conditions that affect the peripheral nerves that run through the skin, muscles, internal organs, and sensory organs. The peripheral nerves respond to stimuli from the brain and spinal cord. Malfunction of the peripheral nerves can cause an unlimited number of odd symptoms, from numbness to incontinence to impotence.

How Is Erythromelalgia Treated?

If the case is determined to be cause from previous foot or ankle damage, there may be a simple fix, such as surgery to relieve pressure on a pinched nerve. For other causes, there are some oral medications, such as antihistamines or tricyclic antidepressants, which may be useful, but it is largely a matter of trial and error. Topical cooling ointments may be effective, as is plunging the feet into cold water. Unfortunately, none of these treatments usually offer consistent long-term relief.

It is important to meet with both a podiatrist and your family doctor to determine whether the underlying cause is a physical problem with the feet or something else, and what the best course of action is for your specific case. Contact a clinic like Advanced Foot & Ankle Centers of Illinois to learn more about treating foot problems.