A High Price for High Heels
I’ve been in a slight state of mourning lately. I know it’s silly and superficial and totally a first-world problem, but none the less, it’s still a sad time for me.
I’m coming to grips with the idea that I may never wear heels again. Even the little ones. At 5’9″, I was never one for those sky-high stilettos that require cat-like balance at the risk looking like a wobbly-legged colt. I already feel conspicuously tall enough as it is. My sweet spot was usually somewhere in that 1″ to 2.5″ range. Not high, just enough to look classy.
I’ve been dealing with neck, shoulder, and back issues for some time now. They originated with a life-threatening horse riding wreck six years ago and have slowly snowballed since that time and were extremely aggravated by my health/autoimmune crisis of the last couple years. It was only after a fall down half a flight of stairs two years ago that I tried my first experiment in going heelless. I remember even now what a difference it made to my pain and discomfort. Eventually, I got back to the point where I could wear most of my heels again, but they were never quite as comfortable as I remembered. Because of the environment I work in, it never occurred to me at the time that I should consider giving up heels all together.
Last fall, I made some huge leaps forward in my healing. I started following the AIP in September and was able to go visit and receive treatments from a long-time family friend who specializes in a unique combination of massage therapy, reflexology, homeopathy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. I felt like I healed more from September to December than I have in the entire last year combined. When we got home from visiting our friend, I couldn’t handle a heel on any piece of footwear at all. Not even my little platform wedges on my snow boots. If a shoe had even the tiniest lift to it at all, I could feel it pulling in my hips all the way up into my shoulders and neck and it drove me crazy. I have not worn a heeled shoe since the beginning of November, and my back and health have been so much better for it.
This past weekend, it finally hit me that I really may never wear a heel again. I’m not sure why it hit me so hard now, months since I’ve worn such a shoe. I was never even really that much of a shoe person to start with! But for some reason I’m feeling a little melancholy at the thought of not being able to enjoy the majority of my shoe wardrobe again.
But it did lead me to question what price we women really pay for this fashion statement. The answer surprised me! Don’t worry, I won’t show you the pictures…
The average woman experiences foot pain within an hour of wearing a pair of basic pumps. Your feet are designed to act as shock absorbers for your body, protecting the rest of the body from the concussive force of walking, through a complex arrangement of many tiny bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. When you wear heels, you force your weight onto the balls of your feet and toes (the forefoot) rather than evenly distributed front to back with the arch acting as a spring in the middle as it was intended. The toes then become hyperextended and the arch becomes strained and lifted up. The higher the heel, the worse it is for your feet. For every inch of heel, the pressure on the forefoot increases by 20% or more. It doesn’t take long for that to add up to a whole lot of pressure that those little digits were never designed to take. This often results in over-use injuries in the forefoot while the increased strain on the arches causes them to weaken and flatten over time!
Additionally, a heeled shoe seriously disrupts the walking movement of your foot, forcing you to take shorter, choppier steps and your foot to strike the ground at unnatural angles, further increasing the shock your body must absorb from every single step as your arch is incapable to act as the spring it was intended to be.
All these issues can combine to express themselves as bunions, hammer toes, fallen arches, and bones spurs, just to name a few. In the horse world, the saying goes that “no hoof, no horse”. I would argue the same could be said of people. The foot is, for obvious reasons, a vital component of one’s mobility and the health of the foot is often reflective of overall health. If you compromise your foot, it can have far reaching effects into the rest of your life and health.
Walking in heels forces your ankles to bend forward, restricting circulation in the lower leg. This will also stiffen and shorten your Achilles tendon over time, which can cause your calf muscles to bunch up and lead to problems walking naturally even to the point of being painful!
Your knee is your next biggest shock absorber after your feet and is one of the largest joints in the body. Wearing heels throws off your body’s natural weight distribution (for which your knee was designed), creating uneven pressure points and wear-and-tear on the knee joint. A 2″ heel will shift your bodyweight forward enough to increase the load on the front of the knee by over 20%! This, combined with systemic inflammation often present in connection with existing health concerns (such as autoimmune disease), is an express route to joint damage and reduced mobility. It’s little wonder that women are far more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis in the knee than men.
Hips & Back
In order to maintain your balance when moving in heels, your body must push the hips forward while arching the back creating the “sexy stance” that makes wearing heels oh so appealing. Such posture takes the hip and spine out of alignment and requires a great deal of work by the tendons and muscles that run down the outside of your hip. This can lead to muscle imbalances and reduced flexibility in those areas. And even a 1″ heel is enough to alter the angle of the pelvis. A 3″ heel can tilt the pelvis forward by as much as 15o! This results in the loss of the spine’s natural “S” curve.
The four curves of your spine act as your body’s third major shock absorber (after the foot and the knee). Unfortunately, this curve is flattened when wearing heels due to the compensations your body must make to maintain balance in this unnatural position, reducing the spine’s ability to absorb shock and increasing stress on the spine. In order for you to be able to walk while in this position, your spine must sway in an equally unnatural manner (we all know that walk!). This all stresses the lumbar portion of the spine in particular, as well as the associated muscles and nerves. There is a strong correlation between conditions like sciatica and foraminal stenosis and stress placed on the spine such as what happens when one wears heels. While there may be many catalysts for these conditions, wearing heels could certainly contribute to the problem!
For me, leaving my heel-wearing days behind was the best option for the sake of my health. As much as I enjoyed them, I enjoy being healthy and as pain-free as possible even more. It was a good reminder for me that while the diet and lifestyle of the AIP are important, you can still sometimes be your own worst enemy in ways you may not have thought of before. Structural problems, whether from wardrobe choices or factors outside of your control, can have a negative effect on your health, and I think it’s important to explore those issues to minimize their impact as much as is possible or practical.
If you aren’t ready to part with those sexy stilettos just yet, here are some tips for minimizing their impact on your health:
- Stick to lower heels. The lower the heel, the less the negative effects will be on your body. Try to keep it to below 2″.
- Keep your time in heels to a minimum. Listen to your body. Pain is one of the ways the body communicates with us. When your feet start to hurt, lose the heels. Remember, most women begin to experience pain after only an hour of wearing heels.
- Stretch often. Now you know the areas at risk from wearing heels so take precautions. Stretching is a great way to undo some of the strain your heels cause. This article has some ideas for stretches that can be done to help keep you feeling your best.
- Select shoes with leather insoles and rounded toe boxes. The leather insoles help keep your foot from sliding forward in the shoe, thus creating even more pressure on your forefoot. Rounded toe boxes, while maybe not as fashionable as their pointy-toed counterparts, allow the forefoot more room to bend and flex and reduces unnecessary pressure and your risk of bunions.
- Vary your footwear from day to day. Wearing a variety of shoes helps reduce some of the repetitive strain. Each shoe is different and will stress your foot and body in slightly different places thereby helping prevent overuse injuries to small, delicate structures like the foot and spine. That’s right, I just told you to go buy more shoes!
- Wear flats when possible. There are some dressy, good quality flats available out there. If you can get those in the rotation more often than not, it will help give your body the break it needs from the stress and strain of heels. One of my favourite shoe shops is Naturalizer. They usually have a fair selection of nice flats, are well made and comfortable, offer a large variety of widths, and are a Canadian company. I’ve had shoes from them last five years or more of regular use with proper care!
And who knows, maybe someday I’ll be able to get away with a little heel here and there again! Only time will tell.
What are your thoughts? Where do you stand on heels (pun fully intended)? Tips for minimizing their impact on your comfort and health? Please share!