'Tis the season to go rushing to the mail box, trudging through the stores and standing in seemingly endless lines. After a full day of shopping, it can feel like Santa has dropped his whole bag of toys on your aching arches or that Rudolph's reindeers have just trampled across your tootsies.
Wearing the proper shoes can alleviate some of the everyday aches and pains, according to orthopedist Dr. Phillip Kwong, director of the new Foot Treatment Center at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles.
The 28 small bones in the feet, and the surrounding network of ligaments, tendons and muscles, do an amazing job, Kwong said, considering that these complex structures absorb up to five times the weight of the body they carry. And if the feet do not support all this weight evenly, the body automatically realigns itself to share the load, he added.
About half of the population has some sort of foot problem serious enough to require professional help, said Kwong, who helped launch the clinic in October. A foot bath, foot massage, or just putting your feet up for a few hours are good palliative measures for general foot discomfort, but chronic pain in the ball of the foot, the instep or the ankle could mean the foot is assuming more strain then it can handle.
Fairly Thick Sole
The best kind of shoe for shopping--or for any activity that keeps you on your toes--has a fairly thick sole that does not bend too much. A sole that bends too much puts a lot of weight on your toes and the ball of the foot and does not have enough cushion to act as an effective shock absorber, Kwong said.
The bottom front of the shoe should be tapered upwards so that as you walk, you roll off the toe, rather than bend it. A low heel distributes weight more evenly, he said; wooden clogs and wedge heels are usually good choices in footwear.
"Soft Italian loafers may feel good on your feet and look good to your friends, but they are not that good when walking on hard surfaces," Kwong said.
Athletic-type tennis shoes are generally good bets for shopping because they are geared toward high-activity wear, have good energy absorption and are wide enough to fit the natural contour of the foot, as opposed to dress shoes that are not designed for comfort.
Kwong said a shoe should fit snugly at the heel and mid-foot, but have enough room for the toes to wiggle. The heel of the foot should rest fully on the shoe's heel. It is always a good idea, he added, to alternate shoes daily.
"Shoes get beaten down very quickly and need to dry out and freshen up," he said, noting that women routinely change shoes to match their clothing, while men tend to stay with the same basic shoe.
Give Feet a Break
Even though Kwong wears comfortable, thick-soled shoes every day to work, at night he gives his feet a break (and his toes a workout) by slipping into clogs.
Changing shoes or adding insoles or orthotic devices such as plastic arches may help ease some pains, but, he cautioned, not all foot problems are caused by ill-fitting espadrilles.
"We are all born with a certain mechanical linkage that changes throughout our lives," he explained. "The foot is a weight-bearing and energy-absorbing system. Bones are like the Tower of Pisa--they need to be stacked up properly so as not to strain the architectural system. If they are not stacked up right, then the ligaments become strained because the bones do not take the weight effectively."
To treat foot problems, Kwong said, orthopedists and podiatrists "have to look at the foot not as an entity by itself, but in connection with the other bones in the skeleton." Some people are prone to certain foot ailments, such as calluses or corns, because of the way their body is aligned. Bunions, for example, can be aggravated but not necessarily caused by wearing ill-fitting shoes or being overweight.
"If shoes caused bunions, every woman who wore high heels should have bunions, but they don't," he explained. "And women who never wear high heels still get bunions."
Too often, Kwong said, doctors merely cut the bunion off, treating the effect but not the cause.
"You have to determine what is causing this bone to drift out and fix that. The bone has shifted out for a reason. It's like tires--if they are wearing unevenly, merely changing the tires won't cure the problem. You have to find out what causes the tires to wear that way and fix the alignment."