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Can High Heels Heal?

‘Walking on sunshine.’ ‘Sexual heeling.’ ‘Toeing the line.’ All headlines for articles recently printed in the South African press taken from The Telegraph, The Sunday Times and The Times respectively, all from London. Toeing the line is all about the Chinese tradition of foot binding and I’ll pick up on that later this week.

The other articles are all about the benefits and effects of wearing high heels! Both suggest that wearing high heels is sexy and in ‘sexual heeling’ the research of a University of Verona urologist, Dr Maria Cerruto, is reported where she tackled “bizarre” theories about the effects of wearing high heeled shoes. The idea of sexual heeling refers to the Dr Cerruto’s assertion that pelvic floor activity is affected.

Traditionally we have blamed high heels for a variety of ailments, such as bunions, stress fractures, knee pain, lower back pain and increased risk of arthritis. South African research by Drs. Zipfel and Berger of The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg showed scientific proof that wearing shoes had bad effects on the wearers when compared to unshod people. (I know this was on old bones but they have the proof). Dr. Cerruto’s evidence is due to be published in the journal European Urology. Since I am concerned with your foot health, I’ll leave that train of thought for you to follow.

However, in the article there is a comment from a UK fitness instructor who runs classes in London for women with high heels called Sweat and Stilletos. These sessions are designed to help women wear stilletos more comfortably. Whilst she agrees with the effects of muscle toning in the buttock region, she says that there must be compensation somewhere else and therefore her classes help with postural alignment.

Now as podiatrists we spend a lot of time dealing with and correcting the effects of postural malalignment. A personal trainer to some celebrities was quoted as saying that” the knees and metatarsals are put under strain, the hips are out of position. It can lead to long-term health risks.”

For me the evidence is there that the movement of the body’s centre of gravity forward causes increased loading and pressure. There is an increase in callus formation and the calf muscles shorten over time. This will lead to deformities of the toes. I agree however that exercises specifically to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the foot will resist these deformations.

In “Walking on sunshine” they report on a New York sports therapist who holds classes for women to strengthen their foot muscles to cope with wearing high heels. Yamuna Zake also gives some good advice on foot care. She has been working with dancers for 25 years and those of you who struggled to get your (or your child’s) feet into the basic ballet positions without them falling flat will appreciate this. The essence of ballet is to be able to get your foot extended down from the ankle as far as possible and have almost 90 degrees of flexibility at the big toe joint.

So what’s the bottom line? Let me quote from the articles. ‘It’s a way to appeal to the male species. I have men who say heels have saved their marriage.’ Yamuna Zake says, ‘my husband is a freak about high heels. He thinks they’re very sexy.’ During my recent tutorials with Wits University medical students I was demonstrating the possible effect of rheumatoid arthritis on the way a person walks. I asked on of the girls to walk across the room in her high heels and then again barefoot to show the difference in patterns of healthy person. Guess what she said before walking barefoot? ‘Oh please I’ll walk like a boy!’

I wonder if walking in high heels will become an Olympic sport?

Read the articles:

Walking on sunshine. Melissa Whitworth. The Telegraph, London. In The Sunday Times (Johannesburg)Lifestyle section. [not sure when, towards the end of 2007].

Sexual heeling. Roger Dobson & Steven Swinford. The Sunday Times, London. In The Sunday Times (Johannesburg) Lifestyle. February 24 2008. Page 17.

Eschewing shoes may save your soles. Gill Gifford. The Star, Johannesburg. Friday October 26 2007.Page 6.