At the foot of the matter

Susan Flanagan
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Onychocryptosis and other foot traumas

“I didn’t marry you for your feet,” my loving husband said one day while massaging my cold extremities.

Well, I hope you didn’t marry me for my money, I thought.

Admittedly, my toes are not pretty. After losing several nails to running, calloused layers have lifted some nails a half inch off the nail bed. When the nails grew back, they became ingrown.

To complicate matters, each consecutive pregnancy caused my toes to fan out like some Amazonian palm leaf. I had to move up several sizes to accommodate my new flippers. So much so, that by the time Surprise Baby came, I was sporting size 10s. Even then, tight quarters in the toe section resulted in several visits to the podiatrist where I gripped the chair and tried to find my happy place.

So, when No. 1 came and told me his big toes hurt, I winced, knowing what he was in for. I wondered how an infliction I blamed on improper marathon training and pregnancy could present itself in someone who had not run a marathon and was not pregnant?

A quick visit to the doctor confirmed what I already knew. No. 1 shared the cloven hoof trait with his mother.

We hobbled off to the family doctor, who sent No. 1 to his colleague to perform a partial removal, in which the painful side of the nail is stripped from the nail bed. The doctor used a toxic acid to burn the nail bed so nothing would grow back. But alas, my son has my husband’s rejuvenation abilities and, lo and behold, after several months the removed nail sections grew back more painful than ever.

So we graduated to the podiatrist who also performed partial removals using a different caustic substance on the nail bed. Once again, the nails grew back — this time with tips like X-ACTO blades embedded in the outer perimeter of the toe.

If you’ve never experienced an ingrown toenail, let me describe it for you. The pain is so intense it’s as if all thinking takes place in that one toe. You can concentrate on nothing else. If it were the ’60s, you would gladly tell whoever wanted to know that you were a card-carrying Communist and a witch, as long as they could make the pain go away.

Until the glorious day arrives when you go from gripping the arm rests of the chair, tears streaming down your cheeks, to breathing normally and thanking your lucky stars the X-ACTO blade has been successfully removed. The thinking returns up to your head, where it was always supposed to be. I would compare the relief to the abatement of pain a woman feels after giving birth. Things still need some cleaning up, but at least you know you’re going to survive.

I know people have far more serious problems than ingrown toenails. People die prematurely of diseases every day that are so nasty I cannot even imagine them and I don’t mean to undermine their seriousness.

This column is not about that. It’s about how one itty-bitty piece of keratin has the power to cause such trauma. It is no wonder that nail removal has been used as a form of torture for centuries. If you want to see a grown man cry, all you have to do is rip off his nails.

Last year, having moved on to a new foot doctor, No. 1 decided to bite the bullet and have both big toe nail beds removed. The first nail was done in May, its hard surface stripped out in two pieces, the barren bed then cauterized. A week of bandages that had to be kept dry was followed by weeks of saline baths and Polysporin. No swimming for No. 1 last summer.

Two months later, when it looked like the first toe might soon heal, No. 1 hobbled in to the doctor with bandaged toe emerging from sandals to get the second big toenail removed. Same deal. Two raw strips peeled away from exposed flesh. No swimming for several months.

In late fall, No. 1 announced he had done two consecutive bandage changes with no disgusting discharge. Yippee! The time had arrived to bring his big toes out for viewing. The best way to describe how they looked is unnatural. If you’ve seen Voldemort’s nose in Harry Potter movies, you get the idea.

“They will never grow back,” said the new foot specialist, fresh off the boat from England.

But we had heard that before. No. 1 knew he was son of the man who had miraculously enabled the regrowth of a severed sperm passageway.

By the new year, like potatoes sprouting in a garden where no potatoes should sprout, No. 1 had a fresh nail growing in. Like an old Cadillac, No. 1 has to present himself for frequent maintenance or else things may fall apart again.

The reason I’m telling you all this is so you can avoid visiting one of the lovely podiatrists in town. Make sure your child is not wearing sneakers or shoes that are too tight, especially while playing sports. Ingrown toenails definitely result from trauma (i.e. running a long footrace in an ill-fitting shoe). They also result from cutting or tearing your nails rather than using a proper clipper and cutting straight across.

And let’s not even get into toenail fungus that can enter your toe through a crack while your child is waiting around on the pool deck. Some things are best left uncolumnized.


Susan Flanagan and her lovely toes can be reached at


More full-day K feedback

Lynda who is a PhD and assistant professor writes:

“I just wanted to write and say how pleased I was to read the article you wrote on full-day kindergarten.  This is long overdue in NL and I hope readers will lobby further for such a change. I agree that bits of glossy paper will not do much to educate parents or help them to educate their children. My own children attended full-day kindergarten in Australia 40 years ago and it was not a new program then. Before that, they attended free preschool three half-days each week which was a wonderful start for them. Keep up your encouragement and suggestions to government for this much needed change.”


Kathy (Pratt) LeGrow, chairwoman of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, writes:

“I read with interest the above referenced article. By way of introduction, I chair a private family foundation, Jimmy Pratt Foundation. Our mandate is to support research and practice in the area of at risk children, youth and their families with a specific focus on resiliency. We have been in existence for two years and we have been fortunate in developing a great working relationship with a national network of foundations specifically working with children in the early years. We partnered with this group on the development of the Early Years Study 3 which gives a national overview of the state of early childcare and learning and full day kindergarten. Dr. Fraser Mustard was the primary researcher and author of the first two studies and was very active in the creation of the third report especially in the genesis of a national Early Childhood Education Index. You can see the study for yourself at where it can be downloaded for free and/or I would be happy to supply you with a hard copy. Newfoundland and Labrador does not fare well in the provincial and territorial comparisons. We have been in contact with the provincial government to partner in some related research and those discussions are ongoing.

“Our foundation has a website as well and you can visit there to see who we are and what we are about. I believe that there are many young children who would benefit from an enriched early learning opportunity and many parents who would embrace childcare opportunities where their children are cared for and linked to a public education philosophy. This subject is a complex one and too intricate to expound on in this email. If you are interested I would love to speak with you and share our learnings to date.”

Organizations: Jimmy Pratt Foundation

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, England

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Recent comments

  • dominic
    February 09, 2012 - 10:43

    It sounds a tad barbaric what you went through. Most Podiatrists do not hurt in any way and in most clinics a 97% success rate is common place. The actual procedure takes 8 minutes and if there is nothing wrong with you then you can heal up within 2-3 weeks. Past 8 weeks and there is usually growth present. If you have been putting on Polysporin and washing in salt water then no wonder it has taken a long time to heal- too macerated. 2 minutes in salt water, and redress- daily for 2 weeks and the difference is very noticeable. If you did not do this then the Podiatrist didn't really tell you the right advice. This is how the procedure occurs and what you should get from a Podiatrist: Children, esp teens are more prone to Ingrown toenails. Never cut across the toenail and never cut down the sides either.