Why Sky High Shoes Ruin Your Feet and Three Solutions

Skin Care


Want to know why women represent the majority of the 43 million Americans with foot pain? Check out the feet of some of the women who pass by you (in a non-creepy way, that is). Are they wearing high heels? There’s your answer (American Physical Therapy Association).

High heels are one of the most glamorous and feminine of shoes. Many women chalk it up to the fact that high heels make them feel any number of things: powerful, beautiful, or just tall. So it’s unfortunate that in all likelihood, they’re damaging their feet. But it’s likely that espousing the damages that high heels can cause won’t convince women to chuck their Louboutins in favor of orthopedic sneakers (Or, at least, I don’t think it will!).

But there are ways to minimize the damage caused by heels, so that you can strut your stuff with less pain.

Ouch! What High Heels Do to Feet

High heels can result in constant foot pain. Ouch!
High heels can result in constant foot pain. Ouch!

First and foremost, because you’re walking so unnaturally, your body begins to grow accustomed to the way you walk in heels. It can really make a difference over time. I once heard about a woman who could run better in heels than she could on flat feet from years of wearing tall shoes. That’s because it causes a tightening in the calf, hip, and back muscles and weakens ankles and toes. It can also cause a hyperextension of the back and neck.

Women are much more likely to suffer foot ailments like bunions as a result of shoes. In fact, studies have shown that shoes themselves are the cause of foot problems. In societies where people don’t wear shoes, the numbers of foot problems are almost negligible (Journal of Bone and Foot Surgery). But while men’s shoes tend to resemble the outline of the foot without constricting or compressing it, women’s shoes tend to be narrower than women’s actual feet (Ouch!).

Whether heels cause permanent damage to the foot or not over time is not certain. Some studies say that heels are associated with hind foot pain (Arthritis Rheumatism). But others aren’t so quick to attribute women’s foot problems to heels. While older women do tend have more foot problems than older men, the prevalence of heel wearing is so prolific that it’s hard to say how much heels account for foot issues (American Journal of Epidemiology, Journal of Public Health Medicine).

One thing is sure though, as you get older, wearing heels becomes harder. That’s because you lose the fatty deposits in the bottom of your foot, so it’s essentially just bone rubbing against the bottom of your shoe, increasing your risk of stress fracture and osteoporosis in your feet (Redbook).

Why Surgery Isn’t Necessarily a Good Option

It’s not just the height either; it’s also the width. Studies have found that close to 90 percent of women wear shoes routinely that are one to two sizes too narrow (New York Times). This, in addition to the heels themselves, causes all kind of damage to feet.

Because of these factors, women represent 80 percent of foot surgeries. Many of these operations were to correct painful bunions, which is generally caused by the way the narrow shoes force the big toe to be bent outward. Some of the surgeries are intended to help women back into their heels.

While select podiatrists argue that it’s important for women to wear heels, the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society has condemned the trend of performing correcting surgery for cosmetic reasons. That’s because you can have complications that result in nerve damage or infection that can make walking difficult.

So while it may seem appealing to just have surgery and hop back into those four-inch heels, having the operation could mean having trouble with walking in anything.

Solution #1: Going Flat

From feminine flats to more structured, menswear inspired brogues, you can rock all kinds of looks with flat shoes.
From feminine flats to more structured, menswear inspired brogues, you can rock all kinds of looks with flat shoes.

This isn’t the most popular solution, but it’s the best. Forgoing high heels can save a lot of foot pain and can stave off some of the more permanent damage that wearing sky-high shoes can cause.

Essentially, the best thing to do to keep your feet healthy is to stop wearing heels all together. By not wearing these shoes, women can save their feet a lot of pain and suffering — literally.

There are plenty of cute alternatives to high heels: ballet flats, smoking slippers, oxfords, and loafers, to name a few. While these options might not capture the same classic glamour of high heels, they can make for some pretty cute and pain-free looks.

This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing either. Have cute flat options in your wardrobe doesn’t mean you never wear heels, but it can mean that you have dress-up- and work-appropriate alternatives.

Solution #2: Rethinking “High Heels”

Low heels can be a nice compromise if you don't want to abandon high heels altogether, but want something more comfortable than stilettos.
Low heels can be a nice compromise if you don’t want to abandon high heels altogether, but want something more comfortable than stilettos.

But many women don’t want to forgo high heels altogether. However, some can be swayed to rethink how “high” their high heels needs to be. As it turns out, with each inch, you add more pressure to the ball of your feet than you’d think. A three inch heel puts seven times more pressure on your feet than a one inch heel, meaning you’re getting a lot more pain with each increasing inch (Wisconsin Physical Therapy Association).

Keeping heels fewer than two inches can greatly reduce the pressure on your delicate feet. So can buying shoes that have a wider toe area instead of those with something like a pointed toe. The Wisconsin Physical Therapy Association says “the higher the heel; the wider the toe box” is a good rule of thumb. It’s also smart to go with a wider, more supportive heel.

Solution #3: High Heel Ready Feet

If you must wear high heels, look for a good fit and get your feet ready for them.
If you must wear high heels, look for a good fit and get your feet ready for them.

If you’re too devoted to your heels and simply cannot do without them, it’s a good idea to consider doing exercises to combat as many of the issues that come with high heels as possible. Dr. Neil M. Blitz, a New York City aesthetic and reconstructive foot surgeon developed an exercise routine with New York City personal trainer Jay Lee (Huffington Post).

His recommendations?

  1. Barefoot squats to strengthen the foot muscles. He recommends consciously thinking about gripping the floor with your toes.
  2. Calf stretches to stretch out the muscles that can become tightened and shortened over time.
  3. Single dead legs lifts to strengthen the ankles and lower leg muscles, a balance exercise that will stop ankles form twisting.

You can also get your shoes ready for your feet by buying the right pair. Ensure they have a good fit, plenty of cushioning, a thicker heel for increased stability, and a more gradual slope that won’t be so hard on your arches. If you want to add cushioning — never a bad idea! — go with something like Dr. Scholls For Her High Heel Insoles ($10.29, amazon.com) or Dr. Scholls For Her Ball of Foot Cushions ($6.35, amazon.com).

This definitely isn’t the most advisable option, but it can definitely make an improvement on high heel-wearers’ feet.

Bottom Line

Heels can do a lot of damage to your feet. For some people, that’s enough of a reason to eschew heels altogether. But for some people, heels are a staple in their wardrobe that they’re just not ready to give up. In that case, you can do a few things to protect your feet. If you’re willing to take the heels down a few notches and make sure the feet is right with a wide two box and sizable heel. If you simply can’t give up sky-high stilettos, then make sure you’re buying shoes that are a good fit, protecting your feet with as much cushioning as possible, and perhaps even doing strengthening exercises to counteract some of the damage heels can do.

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  • Natalie Bell

    @Taylor — Thank you so much!

    @Anna — Thank you for your story Anna! I’m a big believer in appreciating your body for all the great things it can do — so I’m glad you’ve come to be happy with your feet.

    @Sandra — Thank you for commenting! I like the way heels look too, but I never wear them. I’m a flats kind of gal too!

  • Sandra

    Yes, that is why I hate high heels. So uncomfortable shoes! I love flats. No high heels on my feet. :))

    P.S. They do look good. I admit it, but, but…not on my feet.

  • Anna

    I’d also like to push the boat out here into hippie-land and relate my own story… my feet are quite wide and square-toed, thanks to some really annoying genetics. For me, even flats with a tapered toe would ruin my feet. I had pain where bunions form (although I never developed one), blisters, and I frequently sprained my ankles. I’ve since gone toward the barefoot ethos – pretty sandals with wide toes, Toms-style shoes that let my toes spread inside them, and barefoot toe shoes when I go running. I haven’t had sprains since. The only problem is, being fashionable is *so hard*. I wish more designers would make cute shoes for girls like me – we’re out here, waiting…

    But meanwhile, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of my healthy, wide, powerful feet with toes I can spread and nails that aren’t crunched together!

  • Taylor

    Interesting post Natalie! Aside from the obvious foot problems, though, will high heels lead to any spine/posture problems later down the road?

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