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Are high heels killing Aussie feet?

4 min read
7 Apr 2016

Your feet are responsible for getting your from A to B, whether that’s by operating pedals, standing on the train, or old fashioned walking.  Your feet also feel impact in more intense movements, such as running and jumping; distributing the force throughout your body. When wearing high heels, feet often take even more of a beating – so we decided to take a look at the facts about fabulous feet … and the science of high heels.

High heel injuries are on the rise

In a study conducted in America and published by The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery, high-heel-related injuries have doubled during an 11-year period from 2002 to 2012.

Accidents aide, Dr Andrew Weil says the long term result of wearing heels is often bunions (a painful swelling on the first joint of the big toe) and hammertoes (where any toe becomes permanently bent downwards). Dr. Weil also points to high heels as being a likely culprit for women getting osteoarthritis in their knee joints twice as often as men.

So, what happens when you walk in high heels?

Wearing heels is preferred by many women as the calf muscle needs to do more work so is tensed. They also make women look taller, playing into society’s concept of beauty. So, what are the mechanics involved with wearing them? Physiotherapist, Cassie Dionne explains how wearing heels impacts your body:

Firstly, your heel is higher than your toes when you wear heels. This dramatically decreases your ankles ability to strike the ground when walking. The effect of this pushes the feet into a toe-point position so the calf muscles in the legs are extended for long periods of time. This creates a build-up of tension in the leg, which contributes to the pain you may feel after a night out on heels.

  • In a study by The Company of Biologists released July 2010, it was found that the calf muscle fibers were 13% shorter for women that wear high heels.[1]

Secondly, when you walk naturally, your knee is straight when your foot hits the ground. However, when you strike the ground toe first, you must rely on a bent knee for forward propulsion. Your hips are a constant flexed position throughout and can’t perform their full range of motion, which shortens the hip flexors.

Working upwards, your pelvis rotates forward to compensate for your bent knees, then your back becomes impacted and flexed forward too. With a forward flexing back you will likely need to lean backwards, meaning your upper back and neck can become strained.

[1] The Company of Biologists. “Why walking flat-footed hurts habitual high-heels wearers: The effects of wearing high heels on women’s legs.” 16 July 2010

What are the short and long term effects?

Minor injuries involve twisted ankles, to broken bones from a fall. In the U.S there were over 2,500 injuries from high heels in a 5 year period, which equates to more than one every day of the year. Many injuries involve dancing, alcohol and walking on uneven surfaces, a warning to heel-wearing Australians everywhere.

Renee Andrea Fuhrmann, a doctor at a podiatry clinic in Germany, says studies show long term problems will also be felt for women who wear heels all day more than three times per week.

A study published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research looked at the effect of different high-heels on muscle activation in the spine. Women were tested using 8cm high heels and found that regardless of the type of heel, the women who wore heels all activated lower spinal muscles. For women who already experience lower-back pain caused by sitting for prolonged periods, wearing heels will only add to the pain.

Fuhrmann also states if you wear high heels consistently over a long period, Cinderella syndrome isn’t uncommon. This is where the foot has become so accustomed to a heel you can no longer wear flat shoes without pain.

Tips for walking in heels

High heel trainer from Germany, Edeltraud Breitenberger provides a general rule that the smaller a women’s foot, the smaller the heel should be. Her advice would be to not to wear heels every day, but rather to alternate shoe choices to give feet and legs a break.

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It might be surprising that simply wearing heeled shoes can severely alter the muscles in your calves and hips, strain your neck and back, and give way to severe foot and knee problems down the line. It’s easy to forget about the health of your feet, but when damage is done even the simplest activities can become painful, so taking care of them is always a good idea.

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