Finding Your "Sole" Mate: The Best Shoes for Your Back Health

March 13, 2019

Office workers walking
Christine Yu

Achy, sore back got you down? Ouch! If you're one of the 31 million Americans who experiences lower back pain, your back pain may actually begin from an unlikely place — your feet.

From flats to sneakers to high heels, the fit and make of your shoes can affect your back and choosing the best shoes for back pain relief can make all the difference. Here's what you need to know.

Shoes and Back Pain

While you might think that your lower back aches from sleeping on a bad mattress or lifting a heavy box, back pain can actually start with the shoes on your feet. Your feet are your foundation — they help you stand, balance, walk, run and jump. Plus, your feet (and the shoes you wear) play an important role maintaining proper alignment of your spine and distribution of body weight.

Your shoes offer support, stability and protection for your feet. Wearing ill-fitting shoes or shoes that don't properly support your feet can throw off your posture. Not only can this change the way your body moves, but it can create stress on your muscles, ligaments and tendons. Poor posture can also affect the way your spine absorbs shock, making it less effective. Over time, the extra stress can eventually lead to back pain. If you already have back pain, bad shoes can make it worse.

Take high heels, for example. While they're stylish, they aren't the healthiest for your feet. Not only can they cause calluses, blisters, hammertoes and achy calves, they wreak havoc on your back because they force you to stand in an unnatural position.

With more weight pouring into your forefoot, your body compensates to keep you upright. Your lower body leans forward while your chest pushes forward, pulling your spine out of alignment, which can lead to osteoarthritis and back pain, says Constance Chu, MD, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford, in Time Plus, wearing high-heeled shoes day-in and day-out for years can create anatomical changes to your body such as shortened calf muscles and Achilles tendons.

Choosing the Right Shoes

Finding the best shoes for back pain is one of the easiest ways to find relief. While the right shoes for your feet depends on your activity level, health and anatomy, here are a few factors to consider:

  1. Heel Height: Look for shoes with a low, broad heel that are not too high or too low. Just like high-heeled shoes, flats can also lead to back pain because they don't fully support your foot and may alter your posture.
  2. Width and Toe-Box: You want a shoe that fits comfortably in length and width so steer clear of shoes that pinch or are too tight. Pointy toe or narrow shoes can cause hammertoes, calluses, bunions and ingrown toenails.
  3. Flexibility: Yes, flexibility matters, even for your shoes! According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, you want a shoe with a flexible toe so that your feet can move naturally as you walk.
  4. Support: Our feet naturally pronate or move side-to-side as we walk, which helps to distribute your weight as you walk or run. But if you roll too far inward with each step (overpronation) or not far enough (supination or underpronation), it could lead to injury and back pain. If you overpronate, you may have flat feet so look for shoes with good arch support. If you underpronate, you may have high arches so seek out cushioned shoes.
  5. Orthotics and Insoles: These specialized inserts can help, especially if you have flat feet (to provide extra support) or have foot problems like hammertoes or bunions (to relieve pressure in those areas). Talk to a podiatrist to see if they may be right for you.
  6. Get Fitted: While it's easy to buy shoes online, take the time to go to a local shoe store and get your feet measured properly. Shop in the afternoon when your feet may be a little bigger from walking around all day.

Take Care of Your Feet

Even if your employer has a strict dress code, it's possible to take care of your feet. Consider wearing commuter shoes to and from work and switching into dress shoes when you get to work.

The best healthy footwear (and back pain relief!) practice is to find the best shoes for you. Whether you stand all day, run, walk or work in an office, you can find a pair that support your feet and back.

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