Most women have at least one pair of high heel shoes in their wardrobe, and many wear high heels every single day. But behind the stylish appeal lies a sinister risk to long term health, with more and more research pointing to the dangers of wearing these shoes.
High heel shoes are designed to point the toes down, putting the foot at an angle and loading it with the full weight of the body. This forces the foot, leg and back muscles out of alignment, causing damage to not only the delicate bones in the feet and muscles of the legs, but also to the lower back, and even up to the neck and shoulder.
According to the Spine Health Institute statistics, 72% of women wear high heels regularly, with 31% of women wearing them to work on a daily basis and 33% wearing them for going out dancing – quite high statistics for something which has the potential to cause long-term and lasting damage to the body.
How high heels affect you
Wearing high-heeled shoes frequently increases load on the toes, alters foot shape and walking patterns, can cause lordosis and has even been linked to shortening of the Achilles tendons and stride length.
But that’s not all, The American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society explains that other conditions caused by excessive wearing of high heels include:
1. Stress fractures
The excessive pressure on the ball of the foot from high heels puts pressure on the metatarsal bones in the foot, creating a painful condition at the ball of the foot called metatarsalgia. Over time this can worsen and eventually cause a stress fracture in the foot.
2. Heel pain
Heel pain is most commonly experienced after wearing heels for a long time and is a direct result of the shortening of the muscles of the calf while wearing high heels.
Wearing high heels daily will create tightness which may be felt even more when wearing flat shoes or going barefoot.
3. Deformed toenails
The downward pressure of the weight of the entire body on the front of the foot can also result in squashed toes, and in pointed shoes this pressure is even worse. Over time the toe nails will become damaged and can result in deformed toe nails or put you at risk for fungal infections.
One of the least appealing foot conditions, bunions are also painful and may require surgery to treat.
Walking at an angle such as in high heels can also put you at risk for falling and spraining your ankle or even fracturing it. A study published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice even found that women who wore 10-cm high heels more often than three times per week had significantly weakened ankles after only a few weeks.
The women in the study had their ankle strength isokinetically measured and their dynamic balance (walking) assessed. The research indicated that while, in the short-term, weakened ankles might be a short-term result, in the long-term it could lead to muscular imbalance.
Infographic: The horror of high heels
X-ray of bunions
How to undo the damage
If you’re worried about the damage wearing high heels may be causing to your body, the best thing to do is stop wearing heels as often as possible in favour of flat-soled shoes.
If you absolutely must wear high heels, the American Osteopathic Association recommends the following stretches and strengthening exercises which you can do to help prevent the damage these shoes cause.
Aim to perform is stretch before and after long periods of wearing heels and throughout your day.
1. The plantar fascia stretch
While standing, place the ball of your right foot on a thick book or small step with your heel on the ground. Lean forward slightly and hold for a few seconds then switch to the other side. Gradually increase the height of the book/step weekly.
2. Heel walking
Try walking around on your heels with your toes pointed upwards for as long as you can a few times a day. This will help stretch out the calf muscle and strengthen the Achilles tendon.
3. Tap the toes
Do this one at home or behind your desk, sit with your bare feet flat on the floor and raise them up, keeping the heel on the floor and tap the foot up and down, as if to music. This will stretch and strengthen the muscles in the sole of the foot and stretch the ankle.
4. Heel raises
Stretch the Achilles tendon and strengthen the calf muscles with heel raises by standing either on a flat surface or with your heels slightly hanging over a step and then raise up onto your toes and slowly lower back down either to the ground or drop the heels below the step.
Tips for choosing better high heels
If wearing high heels is an unavoidable part of your life, aim to choose shoes which will cause the least damage:
1. Go for a platform sole which will decrease the angle between the heel and the ball of the foot, and evenly distribute your weight across the whole foot.
2. A thicker heel will also give the ankle a bit more stability in the heel.
3. Avoid narrow pointy shoes which squeeze toes – make sure they give you generous space for your foot.
4. Fit the shoes properly to make sure they fit comfortably and hold the foot securely in place. Loose shoes can lead to blisters, bleeding and torn toenails.