The high heel wasn’t originally created as an accessory to wear with pencil skirts. In fact, according to Ancient Origins, the first heels – as depicted on a 9th century Persian bowl – were created for male horse riders as a way to stop their feet from slipping from stirrups. Of course, at some point in the 1600s, women adopted the trend and the rest, as they say, is history. From tiny kitten heels to sky-high platforms, high heels have been a staple in female wardrobes for centuries.
Obviously, the heel isn’t going anywhere. It’s the gold standard in women’s footwear for everything from the board room to the red carpet. But though they’re definitely stylish, high heels can cause major problems for both your feet and your budget.
Heels are the main culprit in millions of foot and ankle complaints across the country, but women still wear the shoes with abandon. Whether you’ve noticed a constant pain in your foot or your bank account is dwindling as your shoe collection grows, understanding the true cost of high heels might be enough to make wearing your favorite shoes more of a treat than an everyday occurrence. Consider the following disadvantages and dangers.
The Cost of Wearing Heels
1. Joint Pain
Unlike other types of shoes, heels lack any significant shock absorption. What’s more, wearing heels also stops your foot from naturally rotating as you walk, since they’re forced into a straight and unbending position. This causes the knee to absorb the brunt of every step, which can lead to severe joint pain and an exacerbation of arthritis symptoms, according to the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Your ankle also absorbs some of the shock as well, so don’t be surprised if a long day in heels leaves your joints feeling stiff and sore.
When you push your feet into too-tight shoes or shoes that force your feet into unnatural shapes (such as pointy-toe shoes), you create pressure on the sides of your feet and toes. Over time, the rubbing and pushing from your favorite heels can lead to a hardening of the skin. It may not be a big deal in the winter, but come summer, you might be too embarrassed to don your strappy sandals when your feet are riddled with callouses.
3. Shortened Achilles Tendon
This might be one of the more worrying side effects of wearing heels: According to Live Science, women who wear heels over a long period of their lives actually shorten their Achilles tendon. With the heel in the lifted position, heels can actually create a physiologically change in the muscles and tendons around the ankles. That means, when barefoot or wearing flats and shoes that cause the heel to reach the ground, the wearer can feel immense pain and stretching.
4. Lower Back Pain
Each year, I attend a hospital benefit where the dress code is formal. Wearing heels is a must, as is standing and visiting with other attendees for several hours. The following morning, my lower back is always in pain. Why? Heels actually cause your pelvis to push forward when you walk or stand, placing tremendous pressure on the lower back and causing lingering pain.
5. Lack of Cushion
When you wear heels, your entire body’s weight is placed on the ball of your foot and your heel is used for balance only. Surprisingly, this can cause a wearing away or pushing away of the natural padding you have on the ball of your foot. In fact, according to Elle, some plastic surgeons actually inject Botox into patients’ feet (they call it a “stiletto lift”) to add padding and make heels more comfortable. Otherwise, without extra padding on the ball of your foot, heels can become immensely uncomfortable, and even painful.
6. Falling and Sprained Ankles
When you wear flats, your weight is spread evenly between the ball of your foot and the heel, with little pressure on your ankle. Unfortunately, heels cause such an imbalance between the heel and the ball that the ankle is forced to become the fulcrum for your entire body. And, since ankles aren’t built to take that kind of pressure, falls and twisted or sprained ankles can be pretty common. It’s nearly impossible to perfectly balance, especially in very high heels, so any bump in the pavement can feel like a 10-foot wall when you’re trying to scale it in your favorite pumps.
7. Ingrown Toenails
Most heels have a pointy or almond-shaped toe, despite the fact that the end of your foot is actually more square. And it’s the biggest and littlest toes that take a lot of the pressure as they press against the sides and the end of the shoe.
High heels cause your feet to slide down and crush your toes, leading to ingrown toenails. Ingrown toenails occur when the side of your toenail starts growing into your flesh, and it can be seriously painful.
Making Heels Safer and More Wearable
Heels may not be the healthiest choice for your feet, but you don’t have to rule them out altogether. Take some precautions and you can still gain a few inches without suffering major consequences.
- Opt for a Platform Heel. If you’re obsessed with super high heels, choose a pair that also feature a platform through the front of the shoe. This offers the look of high heels, but raises the ball of the foot as well as the heel, putting less pressure on the ball overall. A three-inch heel with a one-inch platform feels more like two inches.
- Choose a Comfort Brand. Thanks to innovation in footwear, it is possible to find a pair of heels that are both supportive and comfortable. Designer Cole Haan has partnered with Nike to create a line of comfy heels, while comfort brands like Clarks, Naturalizer, Aerosoles, and Sofft offer stylish pumps that won’t totally wreck your feet. Just be aware that comfortable and supportive heels often cost a premium compared to strictly style counterparts. Expect to pay $75 to $100 for an everyday pair.
- Wear Heels for a Few Hours Max. I put a three-hour limit on wearing my heels, so I use them only when I know an event or occasion won’t last longer than that. If you’re going to be walking, dancing, or standing all night long, wear heels for a few hours and then switch to a stylish pair of flats. This can save your back, joints, and tender toes. You can even purchase folding flats that slip into your purse for a discreet way to change into something more comfortable as the night goes on. I wear CitySlips, which cost $30 and come with a clutch to hold the flats, but I’ve also seen cheaper versions on Amazon and at Walmart for about $20, which come with a small pouch.
- Select Dressy Flats. Think you can’t wear flats for more formal occasions? Think again – embellished flats are a great alternative to high heels. I look for details such as studs, lace, or bows that dress up a pair of flats. Furthermore, flats can be really cute with dresses, skirts, and skinny jeans. However, if you hate flats, try a sleek pair of flat riding boots instead.
- Add Orthopedic Pads. If your favorite heels lack support, try adding orthopedic insoles or pads. Since heels can be hard to fit, thin gel pads work wonders (I love Dreamwalk by Dr. Scholl’s). They’re small, but can still give you a little more support under the ball of your foot or throughout the entire sole to make heels more wearable.
- Stretch Your Feet. If you find that your feet are achy and sore after a day in heels, sit on your couch and place a golf ball or tennis ball beneath your foot. Then, apply pressure on the ball as you roll it up and down your foot. It’s a great way to relieve tight muscles and tendons after a punishing day in heels.
There might not be a substitute for the way heels make your legs look or how they make you feel when you wear them. But if your long days in heels are leaving you sore and tired, it might be time to swap your higher heels for something a bit more comfortable. After all, a lifetime of knee pain and sore ankles isn’t worth the latest in shoe fashion. Still, if you must wear your sky-high pumps, do so carefully and in small doses, and you won’t suffer the ill effects of being fashionable.
How do you make wearing heels more comfortable?