If you are a parent then the words “stepping on Lego” probably makes you cringe in pain. Walking around barefoot, while natural, is not always a great idea in our modern day world. Obviously not everyone has kids or has to worry about Lego blocks ambushing them in their own home.
Wearing shoes has actually been around for longer than most of us realize. Between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago our human ancestors started wearing sturdy shoes to protect and support their feet.
Shoes are not only a huge piece of our society and a statement that we often use to convey our personality and fashion choices, but they can also play a starring role in low back pain.
Wearing shoes doesn’t just prevent us from stepping on Lego blocks (anyone else feel that pain before?!), it also protects the biomechanical function of our feet. While our early ancestors walked barefoot in the beginning, even they found that wearing shoes could have some significant health benefits.
Walking barefoot on hard surfaces can actually cause your feet to collapse, leading to massive stress being placed on both the foot and the rest of the body, including your lower back. When you walk, your body creates the force equivalent to 5 times your body weight and puts this force on your feet. If your foot can’t properly absorb that shock or redistribute it, it can cause a range of health and back issues.
Walking barefoot causes your feet to turn in (pronate) longer during the step cycle (your gait). Overpronation causes the distribution of pressure and weight across your foot to be distributed unevenly which can lead to imbalances and the occurrence of underlying foot problems such as collapsed arches and flat feet when you stand or run. Imbalances in weight distribution can also travel upwards, impacting parts of your body such as your knees and lower back.
Underpronation, the opposite of overpronation, occurs when your feet turn outwards when you run or walk, causing your hips and spine to be misaligned. This can end up causing you to experience lower back pain.
The Importance Of Wearing The Right Shoes
If you have ever made the mistake of going for a long walk wearing just your flip-flops then you might have an idea of the importance of wearing the right shoes for the right activity. When you don’t wear the right shoes you can get a lot more than just pain in your feet. Not giving your body the support that it needs can end up causing pain in your knees, your hips, your shoulders, neck, and lower back.
Wearing the right type of shoes is not just about fashion - it is crucial for your spine. The shoes you wear are especially important if you are running regularly, walking a lot, or involved in other types of physical activity on a regular basis. Your shoes should provide you with enough support for your arch to help keep your spine properly aligned. If you have specific concerns with your feet you should see a podiatrist to help diagnose and manage any issues.
Finding The Perfect Shoe To Support Your Lower Back
Here are some common things to consider when you are wearing certain types of shoes:
Asking a woman to give up her heels could earn you an “are you kidding me?” look. High heels can certainly cause some low back issues but they are not the only shoes to do that. High heels can cause you to walk at an angle that causes your calf muscles to stay in a constantly flexed position and can lead to lower body fatigue. This new angle can tilt your pelvis so that your spine and hips are out of alignment and puts pressure on your knees.
Wearing heels every day increases the wear and tear on the discs that are found between the vertebrae. These discs act as shock absorbers when you walk or run. If the thought of giving up your favorite five inch footwear fills you with dread (we know - the struggle is real!) then try to take breaks and alternate wearing them on different days to give your feet a break. You might also try finding heels that are less than 2 inches in height - a few inches can make a big difference for your back. Lastly, a good platform shoe is another alternative that can give your feet a little more support than a super thin heel and it can help with balance, too.
We bet you thought that that flat shoes were going to get the green light! After all, everyone always blames heels. Sadly, flat shoes are also common culprits when it comes to low back pain. Most flats are made of thin material and have little to no support for the arches of your feet.
When compared to heels, flat shoes are a bit better as they don’t have the same negative effects on your posture, but not all flat shoes are created equal. Some companies are starting to make orthopedic flat shoes that can actually support your foot, but most of the flats on the market can actually put 25% more pressure on your feet than heels do! Over time, this pressure build up and can cause issues with your hips and lower back. Flat shoes can also cause the tendons and ligaments of your feet to stretch.
While our tendency to think of flats as "good" for our lower backs is natural, the actual results of these shoes is a bit sneaky. When we think that flats are better for us, we tend to wear them for longer, do more in them, and then we don't realize that long term wear can actually cause more strain than if we were wearing heels.
Like those who love heels, those who are fanatical about their flip flops will have a hard time believing that they aren’t very good for your poor feet or for your lower back.
Oftentimes, flip flops actually cause us to scrunch up our toes in order to keep our flip flops on when we are walking. ,This causes us to walk unnaturally, straining our backs and our legs. Like flat shoes, flip flops are often made of very thin material (often rubber) which offers very little in the way of arch support, and very little in the way of cushioning for your feet. Flip flops also offer very little in the way of support for your heels.
Standing or walking in flip flops or slippers can wreak havoc on your lower back. If you are a flipflop fanatic and simply must wear them (we get it - who wears shoes to the beach?) then check out some of the more supportive new options on the market. Companies like OOFOS and Birkenstock are making some stylish options that offer the comfort of flip flops with special orthotic designs to help support your body and prevent foot and back pain.
What To Look For In Supportive Shoes
If you are experiencing low back pain and you think your shoes could be affecting it, there are some things that you can try that don’t involve tossing out your whole shoe collection.
1. Find some orthotic insoles that can help provide your existing shoe with the proper support that your arches need. They can also help align your back and legs better.
2. Make sure your shoes have plenty of cushioning so that there is less shock for your body and your back to absorb.
3. Try to keep your heels to less than 2 inches high. Heels that are over 2 inches can increase your risk of low back pain.
4. Find orthotic flat shoes or flip flops. Dansko and Vionic make some more fashionable, but comfortable, women’s shoes. Remember, flats without arch support are going to compromise your posture.
5. Get your shoes fitted properly each time you purchase a new pair as your feet can change size over time, with pregnancy, etc. Many stores will help you find the perfect fit and sizing.
6. Replace your shoes when the cushioning starts to wear. If there is no cushion you aren’t getting the support your feet will need.
What About Unstable Shoes And/Or Shoe Inserts?
What is Masai Barefoot Technology?
Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT) is a new type of footwear design that causes users to have to balance while they walk. You might have seen the Sketchers ads for their Shape Up Shoes?
The idea behind MBT is that these shoes create a style that is more in line with how our bodies have evolved over hundreds of years, as we walked on surfaces that were softer and more yielding than the concrete jungles we inhabit today. Walking on hard surfaces puts a lot of pressure on our bodies, loading pressure onto joints from our knees, though our spines and up to our heads.
Regular athletic shoes support and cushion our feet but the technology behind MBT is supposedly that their design challenges the body's core strengthening muscles, helping us to be stronger, burn more calories and be more active. MBT shoes make all surfaces seem like walking on sand, creating a more natural posture, increasing shock absorption, and supposedly helping prevent back pain.
Do MBT Shoes Actually Work?
A study conducted in France in 2014 found that wearing MBT shoes actually did help with muscle toning, core stability, and improved posture. They looked at 144 participants who wore MBT shoes at work for 6 hours every day for 6 weeks and concluded that "wearing unstable shoes for 6 weeks significantly decreases low back pain in patients suffering from chronic low back pain but had no significant effect on quality of life and disability scores."
Developed to cure back and joint problems, the curved layered sole lengthens the body into a taller, more upright position, and engages more neglected muscles groups. With every step that you take, MBT shoes are supposed to be therapeutic and help prevent low back pain.
So, should you rush out and buy a pair? It is up to you. Conventional orthotic shoes are specially designed for support and cushioning but these MBT shoes may be effective in helping prevent low back pain. More studies of a higher quality might be needed to see more real work benefits but they certainly don't seem to hurt.
Given the fact that experts recommend that we stand for around 4 hours each day, finding the right shoes for the job is incredibly important. The good news is that companies are starting to really blend comfort and style so it no longer has to be one or the other. When we consider some of these great tips for choosing the right shoe to help prevent low back pain, you can now see that there are ways that you can have your Manolo, and wear it, too!