WHILE a pair of ballet pumps may seem more sensible and comfortable than towering stilettoes, they can be the source of severe foot and back pain. In fact, with their lack of arch support and cushioning, did you know that wearing flat shoes can actually damage your feet?
It’s a lesson I learned the hard way.
This time last year, I was in agony. Given the glorious weather, I abandoned my usual high heels and began wearing ballet pumps, sandals, and even plimsolls, to work.
They were mostly cheap and cheerful shoes, bought from the likes of Penneys and H&M.
I had also splashed out on tickets for a series of concerts and festivals. In previous years, I’d worn my trusty Hunter wellies to rain-sodden music festivals, but I now found myself standing all day in flip flops, instead.
The pain started in the sole of my left foot and slowly spread up one side of my ankle. My knee and lower back began aching on the same side, too, and I developed a limp.
Then came the cramps. I’d wake up in the middle of the night feeling as though I was being electrocuted, my toes rigid and pain shooting through my calves. When the spasms stopped, I’d need to spend a half an hour walking around in heels to stop them coming back — not what you want to be doing at 4am, three nights a week.
The final straw came when I went to see pop band The Killers in the Phoenix Park last July. As the crowd went wild jumping up and down to the closing song, I was sitting on the ground with an agonising cramp in one foot.
I went to see a podiatrist that week and was fitted for orthotic lifts that allow me to walk in flat shoes pain-free.
It’s just as well that I did, because flats are the must-wear shoes this summer.
Already made popular by the likes of fashion favourites Alexa Chung, Fearne Cotton and Olivia Palermo, flat shoes dominated the catwalks at the SS14 shows.
Even Victoria Beckham, usually known for her six-inch heels, was photographed in buckled brogues at the start of the summer, which prompted Marie Claire to describe flats as “having a moment’.
Stylist Courtney Smith, who is a regular on TV’s Xposé, says that moment is set to continue into next season, too.
“Whether it was brogues, pumps, sneakers or a new, chunky 1980s jelly shoe, one of the things that really stood out at the autumn/winter shows was the amount of flat shoes,” Smith says. “Celine, Chloé, Simone Rocha — almost every designer is doing their version of the flat.”
Smith is no stranger to flat shoes herself. “In my industry, stylists and models live day-to-day in flats, for comfort, and the heels go on for events and jobs. There is too much running around to survive in heels, otherwise.”
However, according to podiatry experts, women may, in fact, be better off in heels.
“High heels have a bad reputation,” says Dr Nichola Dunne, director of the Douglas Orthotics Clinic in Cork.
“People think that they are doing the right thing by wearing flats, if they are standing all day, but they don’t realise how much damage they can cause. A low, broad-based heel with support can be ten times better.”
Podiatrist Saoirse Waldron, of Spectrum Foot Clinics, agrees. “Flat shoes, like ballerina pumps, can cause a range of different problems,” she says. “They have no arch support, no fastening strap or laces and no shock-absorbing material.
“This can cause too much friction on the heel, Achilles tendon and toes, resulting in blisters, corns and callouses.
“It is not uncommon to see back, hip and knee pain occurring as a result of wearing flip flops and unsupportive shoes.”
One of the most common causes of foot pain is fallen arches, also known as flat feet.
This is a genetic condition, but can be aggravated by bad footwear. If left unchecked, flat feet can lead to osteoarthritis in the knees.
The second cause is plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the band of tissue that runs between the heel and the arch of the foot. The inflammation can be caused by weight gain due to pregnancy or obesity, as well as unsupportive footwear.
As many cases go unreported, there are no exact statistics for the numbers of Irish people suffering from the condition.
However, the HSE estimates that it affects one in ten of the population.
“Thanks to the popularity of ballerina pumps and Ugg-style boots there is a whole generation out there with foot problems,” says Dr Dunne.
“Each September, every second person who comes into the clinic has plantar fasciitis after spending the summer in sandals or flip flops.
“In some cases, home exercises, such as rolling a golf ball under the foot, will be enough to solve it, but other people may need to be fitted for orthotics.”
Orthotic supports can be bought in most pharmacies from about €18.
Over-the-counter models fitted by clinicians and specialist stores cost from €45.
They can also use a digital pressure map and scanning machine to create a custom-fit orthotic priced between €250 and €350.
To keep my own fallen arches in check, I now have two pairs of orthotics — one a light €20 pair for summer use, and the other a sturdy €100 pair — which I slip into my flat shoes.
Without the lifts in my shoes the pain quickly returns, so it’s trainers rather than flip flops for this summer’s concerts.
Of course, the best way to prevent foot pain is to look after your feet, which the Society of Chipodists and Podiatrists of Ireland says will carry you an average of 128,000km in a lifetime.
Saoirse Waldon recommends removing hard skin with a file, stretching the calf muscles daily to avoid plantar fascitiis and Achilles tendonitis, and buying shoes in the afternoon, when your feetare swollen, for an optimum fit.
Given the potential damage of flat footwear, is the only option to consign our It-shoes to the bin? “Flip flops are a total disaster,” says Dr Dunne. “They are too flat, too open and too thin. But finding good footwear for the summer is very difficult. I’d say to people to wear their flip flops and sandals while they are on holiday, or at the weekend, but for working and standing all day you’re better with closed-in shoes, possibly with a low heel.”
Stepping it out...
“Flat shoes aren’t wrong,” says Chris McCarthy, manager of Foot Solutions on Cork’s Grand Parade.
“But nearly all shoes are flat inside and what you need is arch support. A good shoe should have a cushioned base and be shaped to support the arches. Shoes also need to have good heel control.
“The heel counter, at the back behind your heels,needs to be solid and not tilt in or out. You see kids in cheap boots and they have tilted their foot one way or the other. We all do that naturally, but proper shoes will support the heel bone to keep the foot flat and prevent pain.”
Ecco Touch Pump, €100
Clarks Romantic Moon sandal, €65
Birkenstock Gizen Slider, €54.99
Clarks Lia Grace ballerina pumps, €65
Skechers Go Walk2, €59
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