Best Life Now

Are Your Shoes Killing You?

The real price of your footwear
High heels are hell. We all know that. Teetering around on them can cause ankle sprains and breaks; bunions, hammertoes, and stress fractures; as well as tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and ligament damage. While statistics linking injuries to a specific shoe don't exist, the AAOS reports that more than 7 out of 10 women have developed a bunion or other painful foot deformity; 9 out of 10 women's foot deformities can be tied to bad shoes.
Sarah Kehoe
And the problems don't end at your ankles. A study last year found that women who regularly wore high heels had shorter calf muscles and stiffer, thicker Achilles tendons. Another study found that prolonged wearing of high heels can contribute to joint degeneration and knee osteoarthritis, which may help explain why osteoarthritis is twice as common in women as in men. "Any time you stop the foot from performing normally, and a high-heeled shoe does a perfect job of locking up the foot, it's going to increase the forces up the chain," says Casey Kerrigan, MD, one of the first researchers to study the effects of high heels on the knees.

Heels also throw your body's alignment out of whack. "When you wear heels, you change your center of balance, leading to increased curvature of your back," says Judy F. Baumhauer, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and president of the AOFAS. This can lead to the discs in your spine breaking down, as well as muscle spasms and pain throughout the body, and yes, maybe even chronic headache or migraines.

Many women think it's a safer bet to go with flats. But shoes that are totally flat, with no cushioning or arch support, can pose problems as well. Not only do superthin soles fail to absorb the shock of your feet hitting the ground, but a lack of arch support can lead to your feet rolling inward, stretching ligaments and tendons up to the knee. "If you start to sag through your arch, your ankle is next, and with continued stress it drives your knee out and your hip then has to respond," Dr. Baumhauer says. "The problems go right up your body."

Why we're hooked on bad-news shoes
Podiatrists and orthopedists say that their waiting rooms are teeming with women who turn a blind eye to the risks. "It's looks before health," Brenner says. Given that comfort-centric shoes can be pricey ($248 for black Cole Haan Air pumps; $500 for custom-made orthotic inserts), many women would rather cruise around in dirt-cheap flats—and occasionally shell out for breathtaking Blahniks—than spend money on sensible everyday shoes. "Women are forced to pick and choose in this economy," Sutera points out.

The long-term repercussions aren't always obvious. "It takes time to develop serious problems from footwear," Dr. Baumhauer says. "It's not like you develop an arthritic knee the day after you wear a stiletto." But the end result can be a lot worse than a few aches and pains. "If your knees or feet hurt, you're going to sit on your butt and do nothing, and then you gain weight," says Dr. Kerrigan, who's developed her own line of athletic shoes called OESH. Add in the potential for arthritis, spinal injuries, and the need for surgery, and shoes can seriously harm your health.

Next Page: How to break the bad-shoe cycle

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