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Common Risks of High Heels

I find it interesting that virtually no articles on high heel risks suggest giving them up as a viable option, much less the one sure way to prevent or minimize these problems. Most simply suggest cutting back on how often you wear them and lowering the height -- I'm guessing because they realize that for many women, giving them up is simply not perceivable.
12/01/2015 01:21pm ET | Updated December 1, 2016
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Here's a little secret I wish every woman knew: Our legs don't need to be elongated, clenched or upheld at a particular angle to be beautiful and embraceable. I've thought a lot about this fact since last May, when I decided to stop wearing high heels for a year.

My decision was inspired by news that women had been turned away from the Cannes Film Festival for wearing flats. While I was infuriated to hear that women had been shunned for wearing supportive shoe, I was also in awe of them; I would never have shown up to the upscale event in flats.

Why not?

The answers are as simple as they are complex -- and not merely for me. Women are encouraged and, arguably, pressured to wear heels from the time we first learn how society perceives beauty. Thanks to the multi-billion dollar fashion and entertainment industries, we learn that the tall, angular shoes make us more attractive, sexy and powerful. While privileged men were the first to wear heels back in the 1700s, they went out of fashion for them as careers that required stability flourished. Because women were considered less capable professionally and more useful as eye candy, there was little perceived need for such stability.

Since then, high heels -- often the higher the better -- have differentiated the casual from the classy. If a woman wishes to move up in the world, suggests society, it's best she literally raise herself up. All of this comes at a cost.

Since shifting to only lower, supportive shoes (which, I admit, wasn't easy), I've gradually felt stronger in numerous important ways. I've also learned that high heels cause a whole lot more than a bit of temporary pain.

Women should have every right to wear whatever shoes they wish, without judgment. (This is important to note, since women are also "slut" shamed for wearing high heels.) I think it's important to know what we're getting into, however.

Common Risks of High Heels

  • Your feet contain 25% of your bones. Stress or misalignment of any of these bones or the surrounding tendons, ligaments or muscles can affect the rest of your body.

  • It's no wonder, then, that high heels are the leading cause of foot pain and injury in women.
  • Because heels change the way you walk, placing added strain on various bones, they commonly cause knee, back and hip pain as well. They may also up your risk for osteoarthritis of the knee--a type more common in women than men.
  • Over time, high heels can shorten the muscles in your back and calves, causing more pain plus, potentially, stiffness and muscle spasms.
  • Frequent wearing can shorten your Achilles tendon, which could contribute to tendinitis, shin splints and plantar fasciitis.
  • Along with pain comes inflammation, the root cause of many diseases. High heels can also make pain and inflammation from other causes throughout your body worse.
  • Pain and inflammation tend to have emotional consequences, too, so heels can cause heightened stress, anxiety, depressive moods and mental fatigue.
  • Pressure from high heels on the nerves in your feet can trigger numbness and pain in your toes.
  • High heel-wearing negatively affects your walk even when you remove them and go barefoot, shows research. This is because of heels shorten leg muscle fibers, increasing strain on your calves.
  • Up to one-third of high heel wearers suffer permanent residual problems.
  • Two such problems are bunions and hammertoes, especially if you wear particularly tall or pointy heels or if either condition runs in your family.
  • One-third of women who wear high heels at least three times per week have reportedly fallen while wearing them--complications of which are on the rise. High heel-related injuries, including broken bones, doubled between 2002 and 2012.
  • And yet, almost no one suggests not wearing them.

    I find it interesting that virtually no articles on high heel risks suggest giving them up as a viable option, much less the one sure way to prevent or minimize these problems. Most simply suggest cutting back on how often you wear them and lowering the height--I'm guessing because they realize that for many women, giving them up is simply not perceivable. Perhaps some are concerned about personal profit; fewer shoe-related injuries means fewer needed treatments.

    Trust me, I'm glad there's plenty of information out there for high heel fans to wear them more safely. I just wish women were encouraged to consider comfortable, health-promoting shoes without any sense that doing so might end their world, style- or confidence- wise.

    Many women who switch to lower shoes do so because they've already experienced problems. Imagine if we prevented these issues to begin with.

    We really can feel sexy and confident without heels. It may take effort (it has for me), but it's worthy. There's tremendous value in feeling strong and authentic as we are, no shape/height/weight altering devices required.

    A version of this post originally appeared on August McLaughlin's blog as part of her #HeelFree series.