Are your shoes killing you?

Your favorite footwear -- even the flats -- may be harming your body in surprising ways.

Story highlights

  • In past years, the average height of a high-heeled shoe has gone from 3 to 5 inches
  • Women's visits to the doctor for foot and toe complaints shot up 75% between 2005 and 2009
  • A study last year found that women who regularly wore high heels had shorter calf muscles
It's hard to believe there was once a time when we female humanoids simply wrapped our paws in woven weeds and went about our day. These days, designers are daring women to climb to breathtaking new heights in order to totter on the cutting edge of stylish footwear.
Even if you'd never wear Alexander McQueen's infamous 10-inch "Armadillo" shoe, the crazy styles seen in fashion shows have a trickle-down effect. "What designers show on the runway definitely influences what's reaching the masses," says Hillary Brenner, D.P.M., a podiatric surgeon in New York City.
In the past few years alone, the average height of a high-heeled shoe has gone from 3 to 5 inches, notes Phyllis Rein, senior vice president of the Fashion Footwear Association of New York. Meanwhile, flip-flops are showing up at the office, and thin-soled casual flats and sandals can be had for less than $20 a pair.
The outcome for trend-seeking consumers: skyscraping stilettos fight for closet space with ballet flats so flimsy they can be folded into your wallet. And the result is not so pretty. "I used to see about five women a week with foot problems due to poor shoes -- now it's about three a day," says Jacqueline Sutera, D.P.M., a podiatric surgeon in New York City.
In fact, women's visits to the doctor for foot and toe complaints shot up 75% between 2005 and 2009, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Experts caution that bad footwear choices can wreak havoc all the way up the legs and into the spine.
Maybe even as far as our heads: Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann made headlines in July when a news site reported that she blamed high heels for her migraines.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are more sane options than ever: Orthopedic surgeon Taryn Rose created an eponymous line of cute but sensible shoes; brands like the Cole Haan Air line are fashion-forward and user-friendly.
Yet we still follow tastemakers like Kelly Ripa, who straps on 6-inchers nearly every day -- even while on crutches. Workouts aren't safe, either: Crunch gyms offer a Stiletto Strength class, in which you "bring your own heels and strut your stuff runway style."
Not only do we stuff our feet into potentially harmful shoes, but we go to crazy lengths to do so. A treatment known as the Stiletto Prescription or "Pillows for Feet" involves injecting facial fillers into the balls of the feet.
"It's an effort to temporarily replace the fat pad that has worn away due to excessive use of bad shoes over time," Sutera explains.
Worse yet are surgical procedures to help shoes fit more comfortably, such as foot narrowing and "toe tucks," in which the little toe is trimmed down. Last year the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society (AOFAS) issued a strongly worded statement warning against such surgeries.
The real price of your footwear
High heels are hell. We all know that. Teetering around on them can cause ankle sprains and breaks; bunions, hammertoes, and stress fractures; as well as tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and ligament damage.
While statistics linking injuries to a specific shoe don't exist, the AAOS reports that more than 7 out of 10 women have developed a bunion or other painful foot deformity; 9 out of 10 women's foot deformities can be tied to bad shoes.
And the problems don't end at your ankles. A study last year found that women who regularly wore high heels had shorter calf muscles and stiffer, thicker Achilles tendons.
Another study found that prolonged wearing of high heels can contribute to joint degeneration and knee osteoarthritis, which may help explain why osteoarthritis is twice as common in women as in men.
"Any time you stop the foot from performing normally, and a high-heeled shoe does a perfect job of locking up the foot, it's going to increase the force