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High Heels: Fashionable, Yes, But What Kind Of Lasting Impression Do They Leave?

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Wayland Massage | Sudbury Massage | Turtle Dance BodyworkThey’re nothing new. Heels have been found in depictions as far back as ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Primarily used by males for their practical benefits, by warriors on horseback in particular, elevated heels kept the boot from sliding out of the stirrup. In the seventeenth century, both men and women in the upper classes adopted the high heel as a statement of status and style. Through the centuries, styles and associations have branched out, and the heel appears to be firmly ensconced in modern culture, in all its varieties. In the majority of our shoes today, even in some better quality athletic shoes, there is some form of elevation at the back of the shoe.

While there is evidence of heels in shoes going back to ancient times, our understanding of their impact on us physically has only begun to grow in the last few decades. The more we understand about how the body functions, the clearer it becomes that what we put on our tootsies affects us right to the top of our heads.

Arguably, our bodies were designed to function with bare feet against the ground. When we stand with no shoes on, our contact and weight bearing is evenly distributed between the heel and across the ball of the foot. With the advent of shoes with heels, it has become necessary for us to accommodate the change in our base from flat to pitched. As the heel is elevated, more weight is shifted to the front, pushing the center of gravity forward. If a person were to stand without compensating, they would constantly fall forward, even with a fairly low heel. The higher the heel, the more forward the center of gravity, and the more compensation is necessary.

This change plays out in all the major joints of the body, causing adjustments that become ingrained in our every day posture. In order to maintain an upright position, it becomes necessary for the feet to angle down toward the toe, and the knees to shift forward. The muscles in the back of the calves become very short and tight, accommodating the new angle of the foot, and the muscles in the fronts of the legs are required to work constantly, as they now support the weight of the upper body more, where the bones cannot.

The hips shift back, tightening the muscles in the fronts of the hips (known as hip flexors), and causing an increased arch in the low back, which translates up the spine. The torso shifts forward, forcing the head to roll back seeking its balance. The arch of the neck becomes pinched, causing tension at the base of the skull, a significant factor in headache.

The toes, those poor little digits that play such an important role in balance and forward propulsion, become weight bearing. In the case of women’s high heels particularly, they get squished and mashed, with the majority of our entire body weight constantly pressing and squeezing them down into a tapered toe box.

Just standing still in high heels becomes a feat of endurance and balance, never mind moving. In a normal, healthy stride, the heel plays an important part in walking and running, bearing much of the impact when the foot comes into contact with the ground, and taking a significant amount of the weight, allowing the toe to better push off. With an elevation of 2 inches or more in the heel, this role is effectively negated, leaving the ball of the foot as the primary mechanism for weight bearing and forward movement in the foot, a mighty task for such a concentrated area. Bunions, hammertoes and neuromas have all been linked, in some cases, to the regular use of high heels.

Another concern is that walking in high heels is like walking on a balance beam. There is no support for the arch, causing the foot to roll outward (supinate). With the ankle already in a compromised position, this lack of support hugely increases the risk of falling and/ or spraining the ankle.

As popular culture continues to embrace the high heel, even making it mandatory in some work environments, they will likely be around for some time. Educating ourselves about the issues involved can help us better prepare to counteract at least some of their impact. If, in providing this information, some readers are convinced to keep a pair of walking shoes handy to replace those wedges, pumps or stilettos when on their way to and from the office, and consider a routine of muscle maintenance through massage, stretching and exercise, our mission is accomplished.

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