If you’ve ever had foot pain – whether it has been diagnosed as a heel spur, plantar fasciitis, a neuroma, or arthritis, you know it can be a real bear. Foot pain can seem to linger, with nagging sensation that prevents you from comfortably going through your normal day, as well as sidelining you from fun activities you love. Consequently, due to compensation from foot pain, back pain can result.
Fortunately, there is a common variable which contributes to foot and back pain that is simple yet profound: your footwear. Modern footwear has three factors that compress and shift the foot into unnatural positions, changing the anatomy and functioning of your foot (which was perfectly fine the way it was born!). The shocking part is that these features are even in athletic shoes, which are meant to enhance performance and be “comfortable”.
What makes modern shoe design problematic?
- Elevated heels. No, I’m not talking about fashion shoes with 3-5 inch heels. We all know (and can feel) how bad those are for our feet. I’m talking about nearly all athletic, casual and fashion shoes. If there’s a height difference between your heels and your toes, there is an elevated heel. Most athletic shoes have anywhere from 1-1.5 inch heel lifts. While this design changes your foot function in a number of ways, it’s easy to understand how it shortens and tightens your soleus and calf muscles, as well as your achilles tendon. Read more about this design flaw here.
- Toe spring. This is the elevation of your toes from the surface of contact. Try this experiment: stand on your bare feet, with a little more than hip’s width between them. Raise up on your toes about 1 inch, then try to lift your toes. How stable did that feel? Did it feel natural? That’s a taste of what your shoes are doing to your foot on a daily basis, with the elevated heel and toe spring combination.
- Tapered toe box. This is easy to spot in fashion shoes for both genders, with pointed toe boxes, and other shapes where you wonder how a foot could possibly fit into that space. A tapered toe box is highly implicated in common issues such as: bunions, neuromas, heel pain, corns, and even athlete’s foot. Our toes are tools for balance, and compressing them makes the foot strike unstable, often throwing off joints up the chain, i.e. our ankles, knees, hips, and spine. Additionally, the cramping of our toes together can compress nerves, and stunt ideal blood flow.
What you can do to relieve foot pain long-term and increase functionality
- Acupuncture, therapeutic massage, osteopathy, and a proactive podiatrist who emphasizes corrective care (and getting to the root of the issue), are great intervention options. Receiving care to relieve pain, restore function and get information about the factors contributing to your pain is a great way to get started. For long-term resolution of your foot/knee/back pain, know that changing your footwear is a must.
- Do a footwear audit! While you may not be able to replace all your footwear overnight, it’s important to look at your collection, and consider what you wear most often and start there. Of course, you can keep some fabulous fashion footwear for special occasions, knowing that you’ll have to do some “rehab” the day afterwards to help your body recover. This might include calf stretching/foam rolling, rolling the bottoms of your feet with a lacrosse ball, epsom salt foot soak, low back and hamstring stretches, etc. Biomechanist Katie Bowman has a great book Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief, which is great advice for men too. This book talks about foot rehab, and how to transition from your current footwear into shoes that maintain the structure and health of your feet.
- When buying your next pair of shoes, it’s best to have a guide to remind you of the important features to consider. These days, options are available for healthy footwear, but the majority of them will still essentially put your feet in casts. Flat, wide and flexible are key features to remember in your ideal shoe. Your feet are perfect tools to walk on, so let them come back to life, strengthening long lost micro-muscles and enhancing circulation.
- Take it slow! Correct and careful transition from foot casts (i.e. modern shoes) to shoes that support your natural foot function is vitally important. Just think, essentially the muscles of your feet have been sidelined for decades now, and probably a little low on nutrition (from blood circulation), so give them some time to adjust. The links in this article and the resources below should guide you to regiments to follow. During the transition, give your feet love via acupuncture, self massage (or professional!), rolling, and/or foot soaks.
Honestly, even if you don’t have overt foot or back trouble now, wearing “conventional” shoes day in and out for decades will eventually take it’s toll on body mechanics. Giving our feet the respect they deserve by letting them actually do their job is a significant step for overall functionality of the entire body.
- uncovers many myths about “flat feet”, plantar fasciitis misnomer, etc. A lot of information about common foot issues and how to go about correcting them.
- Has links to help you find shoes
- Correct toes are a great tool to help properly re-align your feet
- articles, videos, and resources on functional movement (and consequently foot health)
YouTube videos: search “correct toes” (be sure it’s made by NW Foot&Ankle and/or Dr. Ray McClanahan.
Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet. By Katy Bowman
Move Your DNA. By Katy Bowman
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.