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The truth about heels: It hurts

December 17, 2013

Always choose fashion over comfort, right? Well, not always. Studies suggest that those sky-high heels that many women love to wear could be the cause of the aches and pains that plague the fashion forward.

Shocking, right? Unfortunately, it turns out that there's been quite a bit of research put into this topic, and it’s not looking so good for those who love to wear heels. Do the words “neuroma” and “metatarsalgia” mean anything to you? What about “sciatica?” Well, they’re about to.

Heels can restrict the natural shape of your foot, which wreaks all kinds of havoc on your joints, muscles and posture. As you walk around, your elevated foot slides forward in your shoe, cramming your toes into an unpleasant position. To compensate for the awkward weight redistribution, you naturally tilt your body forward and arch your back. This posture throws your whole form out of whack, straining your knees, hips and lower back as your body tries to figure out how to move around. The result? Many heel wearers develop sciatica - a condition where the nerves in your lower back get trapped, causing pain and numbness in your lower extremities.

To be fair, not all heels deserve the bad rap. Most women can handle a height of two or less inches with minimal discomfort, and few, if any, long-term consequences. But on the spectrum of killer heels, there are two repeat offenders to be aware of.

Spike heels

These puppies are dangerous, and not just because most pairs look like a medieval torture device attached to a leather sole. Spike heels are risky because the higher the heel, the more misaligned your foot is. This positioning puts an abnormal amount of pressure on the ball of the foot, causing the protective fat on its underside to thin out. That’s how you end up with metatarsalgia - an acute pain in the ball of the foot that can become a chronic issue when you choose to ignore it.

Pointy-toed pumps

Ah, the pointy-toed pump - the ultimate shoe for the most petite of feet. But if high heels themselves are bad, pointy-toed pumps are really bad - even more so when the shoe is both high and pointy. They can cause the usual complaints, such as metatarsalgia and hammertoes, but the real risk here is neuroma - an inflammation of the nerve between the toes. The only way to treat it is with steroid injections and physical therapy, and if it is severe enough, sometimes surgery is the only option. Typically, the dreaded neuroma strikes between the third and fourth toes, but it’s possible to get it between any of them.

Are your days of heels done for?

No, but it is highly recommended that you cut back on how often you wear them. Take a look at some of these recommendations to incorporate into your lifestyle:
  • Choose sensible heels.  Select shoes with low heels (two inches or less) and a wide heel base (the thicker the heel, the more evenly the weight is spread). Beware because stiletto-type heels provide next to no support.
  • Wear insoles to lessen the impact on your joints. It’s hard to say what suffers more from your penchant for pumps - your feet or your joints. Either way, you can cushion the blow a tad with some gel cushions or insoles stuck in your shoes.
  • Make sure your shoes are the right size. We all have a pair, or two, of heels that were exactly what we were looking for: gorgeous color, perfect height, and embellishments to die for. Only problem is that they sort of don’t really fit. Unfortunately, whenyou wear shoes (even the sensible ones) that don’t fit, you’re just setting yourself up for injury.
  • Reserve your heels for occasions that are easy on your feet. Every woman knows that there are two types of shoes in the world: the “out, about and moving” pairs and the “sit there and look pretty” pairs. From this day forward, consider all of your heels to be the latter. You’re going to do significantly less damage (and greatly reduce your risk for injury) if you treat your feet to flats on days when you know you’ll be running around.
  • Stretch. Take time every day to stretch out the muscles in your calves and feet. When you’re wearing heels, your tendons can get cramped, so make sure you take the time to relax them, and definitely treat yourself to a pedicure at the end of the week!