High heels are one of the biggest factors leading to foot problems in women, with up to one-third suffering permanent damage as a result of prolonged wear.
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a great pair of heels. But I know they can wreak havoc on my feet, legs and back, so I wear them sparingly — carrying them into work and taking them off before I leave — and fortunately I haven’t suffered any pain or problems, except maybe a few blisters.
However, high heels are one of the biggest factors leading to foot problems in women, with up to one-third suffering permanent damage as a result of prolonged wear.
Philip O. Dripchak, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon with Norton Orthopaedic Specialists who specializes in foot and ankle issues, explains that those perfect pumps can create the perfect storm for permanent problems.
“If you wear high heels often, you are setting yourself up for long-term issues,” Dr. Dripchak said. “Continual bending of the toes into an unnatural position can cause everything from ingrown toenails to bunions to irreversible damage to tendons and nerves. Wearing high heels can also injure leg muscles and cause osteoarthritis of the knee, plantar fasciitis and low back pain.”
How high is too high? Shoes with a heel 2 inches or higher cause your foot to slide forward in the shoe, cramming the toes into the unnatural shape of the shoe and redistributing your weight. The increased weight on your toes causes your body to tilt forward, so to compensate you lean backward and overarch your back, creating a posture that can strain your knees, hips and lower back.
Over time, wearing high heels also can cause shortening of the Achilles tendon. Stretching it back or switching to flats can become very painful. Muscles in the calves and back can also become shortened, leading to pain and muscle spasms.
So, am I giving up my heels? Well, no. But I’m going to avoid problems by following these recommendations from the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society:
- Make sure your shoes are the right size to help prevent the foot from sliding forward. Pick a shoe with a wide enough toe box to allow you to wiggle your toes, or try wearing a larger size and inserting a heel cup into the back for a more comfortable fit.
- Wear heels on days or to functions that require limited walking or standing. Most of my weekdays consist of sitting in front of the computer, so this one is easy for me.
- Alternate your shoe choice throughout the day or from one day to the next. I always change into tennis shoes during my lunch break at work, when I usually walk at least a couple of blocks or go to the gym for a quick workout.
- Stretch. Take time every day to stretch your calf muscles and feet. Try standing on the edge of a step with your shoes off. With your weight on the balls of your feet and your heels extending off the edge, drop your heels down to stretch. I take two breaks a day at work, changing into tennis shoes and walking the steps in my building. This gives my feet a break and stretches my calves.
- Choose sensible heels. Try selecting shoes with a 2-inch or lower heel and a wide heel base. Three-inch or higher heels provide little support and may shorten the Achilles tendon and calf muscles. Also, open-toe shoes are a better option because they give the toes a bit more room.
If you follow these steps before you experience pain or issues, you’ll prevent problems later. Simply put, your sense of style needn’t cripple your ability to stand and walk pain-free.