Are High Heels Ruining Your Feet?

Sure, stilettos make your legs look hot—but they could lead to some serious physical issues.

A recent study found that women who wore heels 40 hours a week developed feet similar to that of a Barbie Doll’s. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user planetc1.

For many women, an outfit just isn’t complete without a fabulous pair of high heels. But while your legs may look fierce in those Manolos, you could be doing some immediate damage to them, and to your feet.

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that heels can be hazardous to your health, especially depending on the height of the shoes and how often you wear them. Researchers asked nine young women to wear two-inch heels for at least 40 hours a week for a minimum of two years. They then compared their strides to those of ten young women who wore heels for fewer than ten hours per week. The women who wore heels daily walked with shorter and more forceful strides than the control group.

Even more troubling, their feet became reminiscent of a Barbie doll’s: flexed, with toes pointed, suggesting that their feet actually adapted to the heels. These results showed that wearing heels had caused the women’s calf muscles to shorten, leading to greater strain on the muscles and increasing the risk of injury over time.

Sonja Evers of Sports & Spinal Physical Therapy isn’t surprised. She says there are a myriad of health risks to wearing heels, including, but not limited to, shortening of the calf muscle and Achilles tendon and injury to the plantar fascia, the connective tissue that supports the arch of the foot.

The problems worsen if you wear ill-fitting heels, adds local podiatrist Dr. Saylee Tulpule; you could experience unstable gait, joint pain, bunions, hammertoes, corns, ankle sprains, ingrown toenails—even tumors of the nerve tissue.

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And what most women don’t know, warns Evers, is that injuries from high heels, particularly the shortening of the calf muscles, “can occur over a relatively short period of time.” In fact, the rapid shortening of the calf muscle/Achilles tendon unit is one of the most notable findings of the Griffith University study, which showed that changes in the heel-wearing test subjects’ stride “occurred sooner than many thought previously, and in a younger population.”

Tulpule says the problem is that often women choose what looks good over what feels good. The problems are exacerbated by purchasing heels that are more than two inches high or are too small or narrow through the toe box, which leads to a “compression of the forefoot” and all of the painful injuries already mentioned.

Since women of all ages run the risk of shortening their muscles and tendons by wearing heels, Evers recommends to consider either forgoing high heels altogether or only wearing them for short periods of time.

Flats are a fashionable substitute, but they have their issues, too. Dr. Ian Beiser, a podiatrist at George Washington University Hospital, says ballet flats and flip-flops “generally do not provide adequate support, and may put excessive strain on the Achilles tendon and calf muscles.”

Dr. Tulpule agrees, noting that “wearing ballet flats with minimal to no support in the heel or arch can lead to high shock absorption” and conditions such as plantar fasciitis.

So what’s a fashionable, health-conscious woman to wear? Dr. Beiser recommends wedges or shoes with a low—but not flat—heel as being “ideal” for most women. Dr. Tulpule adds that for the most stability, women should look for a pump or dress shoe with a wide toe box, preferably round, and a one- or one-and-a-half-inch kitten or platform heel. If you opt for flats, make sure the shoe has some arch support and heel cushion.

Remember, she adds, “There is no right or wrong shoe.” As long as you make sure they fit properly and have a wide toe box and a small heel, you’ll surely be able to find killer shoes that fit your personality and style—and won’t ruin your feet.