High Heels: A Tall Order For Good Health?

I was talking to a psychologist friend the other day and she made a startling statement. She said, “All women suffer from body dysmorphic disorder to some extent or another.” 

This got me thinking ... and I found that she wasn’t exaggerating. We are in fact so obsessed with our weights that we go on harmful extreme diet plans at the drop of a hat, we get boob jobs, attempt liposuction surgery to get rid of our wobbly tummies, and we wear high heels…

High heels hurt as hell.  A day of tottering on stilettos leaves you with back, calf and ankle pain…so, why do you reach for your favourite ‘six-inch killer’ yet again the very next day? Because heels make you look slimmer and your legs longer. I’ve even heard women claim that they can think better with their stilettoes on…

I was also a part of this band of women who’re victim to the allure of high heels. 

But about a year back, I started experiencing lower back pain which only got progressively worse. In two months flat, I found myself completely bed-ridden due to back pain. And believe me when I say this, even turning on the bed was sheer agony. 

I approached a good orthopaedic surgeon who finally diagnosed what was wrong- an intervertebral disc in my lower back had slipped out of place. I was advised not to bend forward, lift heavy weights, rest frequently and avoid high heels.

I could understand why I could not lift weights or bend forward, but I was kind of miffed about being asked to give up my heels. This is when my orthopaedic doctor had to sit me down and explain how high heels affect the health of my spine, feet, and legs.

Here, in short, is what he said about how dangerous constant high heel use can be.

Dangers of high heels

  1. Balance problems - Research published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice suggests that high heels may lead to changes in the muscles around your ankle joint, leading to instability and balance problems. 
  2. Difficulty walking - Long-term use of high heels cause changes in length of muscles that help you walk, this causes the Achilles tendon at the heel to shorten and get stiff. 
  3. Leg pain - High heels, especially those which are over four inch tall, force your feet into an unnaturally extended position. To maintain balance, your calf, hip and back muscles become stiff and tense. The calf muscles, however, bear the brunt of your vanity the most and they cramp and bulge out the most. 
  4. Pain in the ball of your foot - Heels also place too much pressure on the balls of your feet so much so that  the natural padding can wear away, causing more pain.
  5. High heels push the centre of gravity forwards so your body has to work extra hard to keep your balance while wearing heels and this makes you more prone to falling and ankle sprains. 
  6. Joint pain - Heels lack shock absorption and because wearing heels also stops your foot from naturally rotating as you walk, this may cause the knee to absorb the brunt of the impact which can lead to severe joint pain and an exacerbation of arthritis symptoms, according to the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  7. Lower back pain - The normal S-curve shape of the back acts as a shock absorber, reducing stress on the vertebrae. While wearing heels, your chest is pushed forward, as is the lower back and this takes the hips and spine out of alignment.
    As the high heels cause you to lean forward, your body decreases the forward curve of your lower back to help keep you in line. Poor alignment of the body causes back pain and muscle overuse.
    With flats, the spine is fairly straight, calf muscles are relaxed and this footwear also distributes the weight of your body over the entire foot.
  8. Ingrown toenails- Heels with a pointy or almond-shaped toe can cause ingrown nails because there is no space for the biggest and littlest toes. This makes them press against the sides and the end of the shoe leading to calluses. 
    High heels cause your feet to slide down and crush your toes, leading to ingrown toenails which can be seriously painful.
  9. Spondylolisthesis- This is the slippage of one vertebra forward over another frequently due to persistent high heel use, especially in the lower back spine, where the body’s weight is concentrated. 
  10. Foraminal stenosis- This is a spinal nerve condition that can happen when abnormalities in spine reduce the space in the nerve canal through which the spinal nerves pass. This causes symptoms like numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, spasms, cramping and pain in the back and down your legs.


Heels made safer 

The solution to the above health problems associated with high heel use are-

1.    Not wearing heels for long periods.

2.    Stretching leg muscles before and after wearing heels.

3.    Setting a limit of heels to two inches max.

4.    Avoiding pointed toed shoes or sandals.

5.    Using shoes with leather insoles to prevent the foot from slipping.

6.    Wearing thicker heels like wedges as they help maintain balance.

7.    Always wearing soft insoles to reduce pressure on your knees.

8.    Alternating heels with flats. It’s best to limit high heels to two to three days a week.

9.    Wearing heels for a few hours max like you could put a three-hour limit on wearing your heels to avoid damaging your feet and back.

Remember, that though high heels aren’t going anywhere soon, you can make the pain and discomfort from wearing them, go away by following our advice. 

About the Author

Shikha Gandhi