High heels. Those two words, when strung together, can evoke a variety of feelings, emotions, as well as the possible emptying of bank accounts. You might be more than familiar with them, having a closet or two devoted to your collection which spans the colors of the rainbow, and bestow upon them the power to “make or break” any outfit and/or week.
You are not alone. Statistics show that 72% of women will have worn heels at least once in their lifetime, and the average American woman will spend in excess of $9,000 on them during her time here on planet earth. Wait, what!?
But if you’re an avid wearer of high heels, you also might be familiar with how painful wearing them can be over an extended period of time. For some of you that might be a full day, for others a full five minutes. And there’s a reason for this: heels can actually be harmful to your health.
So, in addition to sore tootsies, let’s explore why you might want to put down your next pair of 4”, bedazzled, red patent leather stilettos and explore what those “flats” everyone keeps mentioning are all about.
1. Muscle Strain
The human body is a pretty marvelous thing. When we’re standing with proper posture (also called neutral posture), and everything is in alignment, the forces of gravity are working perfectly with us. If any of you are familiar with yoga, there is a posture called Mountain Pose which perfectly demonstrates what this looks like.
When we slap on a pair of heels, placing our body at a whole bunch of unnatural angles, those gravitational forces are now against us. This causes the muscles in our calves, thighs, glutes and back to work extra hard to keep us from tipping flat onto our faces. And maintaining this wonky posture over time can cause pain, swelling and damage in all of the above areas.
Let’s delve deeper into what that actually looks like, working from our feet on up…
2. Smashed Piggies
Remember this: the higher the heel, the greater the amount of pressure being placed on the ball of the foot. Naturally, these forces cause the foot to slide forward, especially when walking, and the only thing stopping your foot is the front of your shoe. That pressure then ends up being pushed back into your toes, which not only causes pain and inflammation in the toe joints and tissues, but in all of the bones of the foot as well.
Now, if we all take a moment and think back to the childhood nursery rhyme we all know, we can recall that it doesn’t mention anything anywhere about “this little piggy” being shoved unceremoniously into a pointy-toed stiletto.
There’s an awful saying out there emphasizing that the cost of being beautiful is enduring pain, so some might feel that destroying one’s feet with heels is a price they’re willing to pay. But others who have endured the agony which is bunion surgery would beg to disagree.
Bunions occur when there is extended pressure over time, specifically on the big toe joint right where the toe joins the foot (the 1st Metatarsophalangeal joint). The body copes with this by depositing extra bone as protection at the site, resulting in a large painful bump on the side of your foot, and your big toe shooting off at a weird angle.
If the movement of the joint becomes impaired and the pain gets to be too much, surgery might be the only option. There are a variety of types of bunion surgeries, but many of them are extreme and can involve the use of wires or screws, and/or the full realignment of bones, ligaments and the joint itself. Ouch!
Surgery like this can require weeks of recovery time off your feet, and can take up to a year for someone to fully heal. Warning: Googling “bunion surgery images” might scar you for life.
4. Structural issues
Just like any beautiful bridge or doorway, the arch of the foot is a structural support for our body to deal with the different forces (such as gravity and movement) being placed upon it. When our shoes kick this curve out of alignment, it can lead to lengthening and/or shortening of the muscles, ligaments and tendons which naturally create the arch (shoes which are too tight can do this as well).
This change has a ripple effect, not only on the performance and comfort of our feet (also meaning our ability to walk!) but throughout all of our joints and muscles. That’s the thing about the human body; everything is connected. An issue with your feet can radiate elsewhere over time if not properly addressed.
5. Stress Fractures
Even if you are gifted with feet the size of boats, the 26 bones within your foot are actually very small and quite delicate. Needless to say, they don’t appreciate the pressures being placed on them by high heels either, and if it gets to be too much, the bones can actually break.
Stress fractures, which are either a crack in the bone, or severe bruising of the bone, often cannot be fixed by a cast and can require up to eight weeks to heal. In addition to limiting your physical activity, your physician might need to fit you with an aircast boot and crutches. That look is SO much hotter than a pair of heels, non?
6. A Weird Heel Bump
As mentioned before, heels can cause the muscles and ligaments holding the bones of our foot to shift over time which can result in something called Haglund’s Deformity. This lovely syndrome, which sounds like something evil straight out of a children’s cartoon, causes a bony protrusion (also called a “pump bump”) to form on the back of the heel. The soft tissue surrounding it usually becomes red and irritated as it’s constantly being rubbed against, and can make wearing shoes with stiff backs painful if not impossible.
7. Achilles Tendon Damage
To rise up onto your toes, you need to flex your calf muscles. This action causes not only a shortening of the muscles (the gastrocnemius and soleus), but also of the Achilles tendon, which is the hard connective tissue at the bottom of your lower leg. Its role is to attach your calf muscles to your heel, traveling over the back of your ankle joint and facilitates a downward, or pointed, movement of the foot. It is also essential in the mechanics of our gait. Read: it allows us to walk properly.
When you wear heels, your calves and Achilles are required to be in a state of constant contraction (they’re also helping with balance). If you don’t give yourself a break, they can stay shortened and cause issues with your ability to take a normal step.
8. Knee Pain
If you have ever hurt your knee (and it’s pretty easy to do), you will agree that the joint is probably the most poorly designed one in the human body. It does not like any force coming at it from the right or the left, and likes to get inflamed at the drop of a hat if you ask too much of it.
Since heels shift everything up and forward, the legs are heavily involved in keeping us balanced and upright. This forward motion causes severe stress and misalignment in the knee joint, resulting in friction and wear and tear on the bones, cartilage, etc. As a heads-up, this is a recipe for developing osteoarthritis, and may possibly even lead to the need for surgery.
9. Back Pain
As our childhood favourite song “Dem Bones” taught us, the knee bone eventually is connected to the hip and back bones (as a public service announcement, that song is entirely anatomically incorrect). When our legs are being pushed forward by high heels, the upper body must compensate these forces by leaning backwards. In this action, the stomach juts forward, causing an exaggeration in the curve of the lower back, specifically in the lumbar spine.
As we know, the spine does many things, including protecting our spinal cord, i.e. the giant cable of nerves connecting all the parts of our body to our brain. When there is compression in the lumbar spine, the nerves in this area can become pinched. For any of you who have experienced lower back pain, you are all too familiar with how uncomfortable this can be. Yoga, anyone?
10. High Heels Can Make You Fat
Woo! You snapped to attention there, didn’t you?
Maybe you’re wondering how in the world wearing a pair of shoes could possibly cause weight gain, especially when many of us like high heels because they make us appear taller, longer and leaner. But, as we have talked about at length, heels can mess up your gait and possibly cause you pain, the result of which is that you end up walking more slowly that you would if you were wearing a pair of your favorite comfy kicks. And as we all know, less speed equals fewer calories burned.
If you were to wear high heels daily for a year, this decrease in speed could end up adding five extra pounds of weight to your frame! Yikes!
Moral of the story: get a comfy pair of flats to wear as you go about your day, and bring out the heels on special occasions or when you don’t need to be overly mobile.
Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.