Are your high heels hurting your health?

Oct 31, 2011 at 10:30 a.m. ET

When the topic of women’s health comes up, one essential part of our body often gets overlooked – our feet. Those troopers! But years of wearing high heels for hours a day can wreak havoc on our feet, and lead to knee and back pain. Here’s what you can do about it – without banishing those favorite stilettos from your closet.

Woman with high heels

Women love their high heels -- the fashion, the added inches, elongating the leg to look slimmer. But there's a downside to all that strutting.

"The most common complaint from women is pain in the ball of the foot," says Dr. Geoff Gray, a specialist in orthopedic and sports physical therapy, and a consultant for Teva and New Balance shoe brands.

"In high heels, all of the pressure of the body is centered on the ball of the foot, rather than dispersing that force throughout the entire foot. When this is coupled with insufficient cushioning and arch support in the shoe, the tissues that naturally cushion the ball of the foot will break down and start to swell with inflammation."

Long-term effects can be serious, including knee joint arthritis and painful bunions. "Walking in high heels without supportive inserts increases the pressure in the knee joint when compared to walking in flats," Gray explains. To that end, he is the president and founder of Heeluxe, a company that manufactures biomechanic foot solutions, such as luxury high heel inserts. "The goal should be to modify how women wear heels and how they take care of their feet afterwards," he says.

Stretch or massage your feet once a day

Gray recommends stretching or massaging feet once a day. Try basic calf stretches -- and keep a tennis ball or golf ball under your desk and roll the bottom of your foot on it periodically to massage the plantar fascia and muscles there. Stretching the quadriceps and hamstring muscles in the thigh can also prevent high heel-related knee pain.

Make sure the shoe fits

Properly fitting shoes with sufficient support and cushioning are key. Don't assume a shoe will "break in" and become comfortable. "You should be able to wiggle your toes a little bit when you are standing and, for strappy shoes, make sure the straps don't dig into your pinky toe and push it into the other toes," Gray says. "Real leather makes a world of difference in shoe construction -- it is breathable and will mold to the foot better."

Shoe modifications, such as inserts and orthotics, are worthwhile. Cushioning inserts help with initial comfort, but do little to prevent foot pain in the long term, Grey says. Custom orthotics can help prevent foot pain and can sometimes be built into a high-heel shoe. Is there a happy medium? Gray created the Talus Heelbed insert for high heels to help distribute the weight throughout the arch and heel, easing pressure on the ball of the foot.

If your feet are sore, let them rest

If you wear high heels all day for work, wear supportive flat shoes when you get home, Gray suggests. "Similarly, if you are planning on a long night on the town in heels, let your feet rest during the day in some comfortable flats." Beware: Flip-flops don't count! They make your feet work much harder than wearing shoes or going barefoot, he says.

Watch: How to prevent foot blisters

All it takes to keep your feet happy and pain-free are a few precautions.


More tips for happy feet

Foot pain? Foot care for all seasons
Hammertoe: Causes of foot pain
Easing foot pain: Best advice is change your shoes