It’s safe to say that most women have a love-hate relationship with high heels. Stepping into a pair of sky-high stilettos can make you feel confident, sexy, and strong, but wearing them through an entire workday or night out is an enduring struggle. The pain. The swelling. The blisters. Did we mention the pain? Unless, like Christie Brinkley and Molly Sims, you have spent your entire lifetime learning to properly walk in heels, you’ve probably ended up hobbling home on more than one occasion.
“I can tell a woman is wearing the wrong shoes when her body is not positioned in a 90-degree angle with the ground – her chest is pushed forward while her buttocks is further out – her sway is longer, and her stride is jerkier,” says Miguel Cunha, MD, a podiatrist in NYC and founder of Gotham Footcare. “The body pushes forward so the center of pressure is moved towards the balls of the feet.”
High heels alter the ability of the foot to absorb shock evenly while holding up your body weight, he explains, and extended wear can lead to issues like metatarsalgia (aka pain in the ball of the foot), bunion deformities, tendinitis, as well as knee and lower back pain. The shape of the shoe, in most cases, does not support the normal structure of the foot, and one study found that muscle strength along the front and back of the ankle weakens over years of wearing high heels.
But fashion is pain, right? Wrong… “Never go over three inches in heel height when shopping for shoes, because it changes the biomechanics of how you walk,” cautions Dr. Cunha. Anything higher throws off your center gravity, as confirmed in the study above, putting unnecessary stress on your metatarsal bones, Achilles tenon, knees, and back.
Also harmful is a flat shoe, he cautions. As anyone who has experienced sandal soreness knows, the effect can be just as damaging: “A shoe that is completely flat can cause pronation and collapse of the arch, which may contribute to planter and posterior heel pain, shin splints, knee pain, and back pain.”
Now you’re probably wondering what exactly to look for when shopping for shoes. Trust us, we were a little confused at first, too. According to podiatrists, the best heel height is anywhere between one to three inches. But Dr. Cunha recommends shoes that have around a 1-inch heel or wedge with an arch incorporated into the design to help minimize discomfort.
“When looking for heels, I also recommend looking for a wider toe box to accommodate the toes comfortably, ankle straps to help support the foot, and a proper fit to support the body,” he says.