Heels today, bunions tomorrow

Consumer Reports News: December 08, 2010 09:08 AM

I was surprised to recently come across a photo of entertainment guru Martha Stewart and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, both wearing 5½-inch heels. After all, the more years women spend in high heels, the more likely they are to suffer foot deformities and arthritic changes that make wearing the shoes painful and sometimes impossible.

“It’s like a ticking time bomb,” says Judith F. Baumhauer, M.D., incoming president of the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society (AOFAS). “By the time you’re 40, you’ve worn out your forefoot padding and your feet just can’t take the abuse anymore.” 

Joel S. Buchalter, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases, and co-director of the Orthopaedic Institute at Putnam Hospital Center in New York, says that he sees quite a few patients who, after years of wearing heels go on to suffer from plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammer toes, calluses, inflamed nerves, and ingrown toe nails. In one study of 356 women, 70 percent of those who’d sported ill-fitting shoes acquired more than one of those foot maladies. Indeed, Victoria Beckham—who is practically the poster girl for super high stilettos—exposed her bunions earlier this year when she dipped her toes in the ocean.

Alas, several of my friends have also developed foot problems. Elizabeth, who now lives in Panama and loves to salsa, has large bunions and arthritis in both her big toes. Her troubles began following a night on the dance floor in heels, she says, and she’s now resigned herself to the fact that sexy shoes just aren't a possibility. Lily, who can run several marathons a year, says that her heel days are long gone…she can only wear ‘little old lady shoes’ now. And my friend, Connie—who had already suffered serious bunions years ago from wearing heels, and had surgery for it—is convinced that the stress fracture she suffered in her foot last year stemmed largely from the fabulous boots with 3½-inch heels she bought in Paris. By the end of her first day wearing them she had intense pain in the front of her right foot, and over a year later she has yet to wear those boots a second time.

So what can you do to help prevent foot problems?

• Stay low. Stick to heels that are 2 ½ inches or lower.

• Get a good fit. Make sure that your shoes fit properly. The AOFAS offers more information how.

• For bunions or hammer toes, make sure that your shoes have a wide and high toe box. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests that you avoid shoes that are short, tight or sharply pointed, and if you already have a bunion, that you wear shoes roomy enough to not put pressure on it. (You can try to have your shoes stretched by a professional so that the toe box better accommodates your feet).  If you start to develop bunions, hammer toes, or other foot problems, see a doctor to check if custom shoe inserts or other treatments might help.

And if you really won’t give up heels, at least try to limit your time on them. I mean, would it kill you to wear sneakers or flats to and from your destination, and save the heels for the big event?

Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser to Consumers Union

Read more about the dangers of high-heel shoes


Joel Keehn

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