It’s that time of year again. The snow is gone, flowers are blooming and flip-flops are making their appearance again as temperatures rise and people want to free their feet from their winter boot prisons. Unfortunately that may be bad news for wearers’ feet, ankles, knees and more. Researchers from Auburn University recently presented their findings from a university-based study at the American College of Sports Medicine, on the effect of wearing flip-flops on body mechanics.
Personally, I see a big jump in patients at my practice in the beginning of the summer and the majority of them live in flip-flops immediately preceding their new injuries or complaints of aches and pains. The researchers provide a succinct reasoning as to why that might be:
“We found that when people walk in flip-flops, they alter their gait, which can result in problems and pain from the foot up into the hips and lower back,” Shroyer (one of the researchers) said. “Variations like this at the foot can result in changes up the kinetic chain, which in this case can extend upward in the wearer’s body.”
Specifically, by curling your toes to hold onto your flip-flops you’re eliminating a natural biomechanical mechanism that helps stabilize your foot and by extension, your entire lower extremity: the windlass mechanism. Simply put, when your heel makes contact with the ground under normal circumstances, and especially barefoot, your toes will extend upwards. This increases your arch height, may pack your foot bones (tarsals) more closely together while also providing tension to the connective tissue known as fascia and other tendons on the bottom of the foot. All of these actions together create a more stable foot and a more natural pain-free gait.
When people wear flip-flops, these biomechanics tend to go out the window. Curling your toes prevents this stabilizing mechanism and as the researchers noted, will tend to affect your joints up the kinetic chain. Additionally, I’ve seen the wearing of flip-flops contribute to flat-free, or the dropping of the arch in the foot. I suspect this is partly due to a lack of use of the windlass mechanism. By relying on the passive elements of your foot’s structure like the ligaments and fascia to take the brunt of the force when you walk, you’re basically over-stretching these tissues over and over.
What You Can Do About It
Throw out your flip-flops. Yes – I’m serious. No, it’s nothing personal. And no, it’s not because the flip-flops “lack support”. I try to go barefoot or wear “minimalist” shoes whenever possible and haven’t owned a shoe with “good arch support” in over a decade.
I use the muscles in my feet and lower legs to support my weight. Not only do I no longer have foot and lower leg pain like I used to after years of playing soccer, but I also find that my back health has also improved. Standing for long periods, even in the same spot, and even on hard surfaces like concrete, no longer irritates my lower back like it used to.
Instead of going cold turkey, you do have options! I recommend sandals with a heel strap. As long as the structure of your footwear allows for the normal movement of your feet they get a gold star. A heel strap on the back of your sandal eliminates the need for you to curl your toes to keep your shoe on, which naturally improves your gait and reduces the stress on your feet and legs. It really is that simple.
Anyone else have any experience with flip-flops causing unexpected pain? Any better solutions out there that I missed? Leave your insights in the comments below.