My favorite pair of high heel shoes is an elixir for feminine transformation: Stitched together by thin black leather straps, small silver clasps, and four inch tall plastic heels. Slipping on those stilettos instantly lengthens and slims the appearance of my legs, hoists me up to a 5’9” stature, and jolts me with a boost of confidence.
Of course, something this good has its down falls. Impractical and often painful to wear, high heels come with a dose of side effects. However, this hasn’t fazed many women (and some men) from slipping on those sexy shoes. Perhaps its benefits outweigh the risks, but how well do we know the risks?
A 2010 British study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that among the female participants who regularly wore high heels, their Achilles’ tendons were thicker and their calf muscles were 13 percent shorter. These findings may explain why women who chronically wear high heels (compared to those who don’t) might experience discomfort wearing slippers or flats.
For those of us who wear high heels fewer than five days a week (which the women did in the British study) we face other risks. Any shoe that elevates our heel changes the angle of our ankle joint making it unstable, decreasing its range of motion, and increasing our risk for falling or getting an ankle sprain.
According to Nicole Sullivan, a physiotherapist specializing in optimal movement strategies and sports medicine, high heel shoes disrupt a person’s walking pattern, or gait.
“Narrow shoes like stilettos don’t allow for splaying of the foot. Its position is not optimal for absorbing ground reaction force (shock absorption from walking), which then impacts the knee, hip, and lower back,” say Sullivan.
What about those comfortable high heels?
Do you like the heels with a roomier toe box and a wider, softer, and moderately elevated heel? According to a Harvard study published in The Lancet, these comfortable high heels may help reduce the risk for falls, ankle injuries, and feet deformities but has the same, if not increased, harmful effects on our knees.
High heels compromise the ankle’s normal function, forcing the knee and hip to compensate in order to maintain stability. An earlier Harvard study published by the same author found that on average, there was a 23 percent greater force on the patellofemoral joint (where the knee cap joins the thigh bone) when wearing high heels versus going barefoot. Prolonged pressure across this joint from extended high heel use may even contribute to degenerative joint changes.
Regardless of how comfortable our heels feel, if our shoes are elevated, stress is added to our ankles, knees, hips and muscles supporting them. Many women tend to wear these wide heel dress shoes for longer periods of time and especially for work. For this reason, comfortable high heels – while giving mercy to our feet – are equally, if not more risky, to our joints.
According to Sullivan, findings from all three studies could have been stronger because each study had only 20 participants and thus they were not conclusive. Nevertheless, these studies can offer additional insight to how high heels can impact our body. “I wouldn’t say never wear high heels but people should try to wear shoes that allow for their most natural gait pattern and allows for comfort.”
Tips For High Heel Lovers to Protect you Feet and Legs: (From physiotherapist Nicole Sullivan)
- Roll a tennis ball under your calf. Sitting on your buttocks, bend one knee and stretch out the other leg in front of you. Place the tennis ball under the straight leg so your calf is resting on it. Gently move your leg so the ball is rolling up and down the length of your calf. Switch legs.
- Calf stretch. Face the wall, put right toes against the wall, while your heel is on the ground. Lean into the wall until you feel a gentle calf stretch. Hold for 3-5 minutes. Switch feet.
- Avoid regularly wearing any shoe impairing your natural or optimal walking stride.