Shoe Advice For Those That Work Long Hours On Their Feet

work shoes

Many people out there have jobs that require long hours on hard floors, and their feet suffer for it.  In the next two posts, I want to discuss some tips on how shield the feet from the strain that those long hours can inflict on them, and how appropriate shoes and inserts can help make a difference.  I am splitting it up because the topic is so broad, but it is important to discuss.

The feet can withstand many hours of activity, but unfortunately we are not necessarily genetically predisposed to being able to withstand flat, hard surfaces for long hours.  In that regard, our feet need help, and that help comes in the form of shoes and sometimes inserts that go into the shoes to provide support, comfort, and foot endurance.  Shoe choices are influenced from a number of different factors, ranging from fashion to employer mandate.  People select their shoes for both personal and professional reasons, but do not always make the best choices and have to suffer the consequences.  Unfortunately, there is not one or even several specific shoes or even shoe styles that are best for the human foot.  Everyone has different structural needs that are influenced by the direct structure and shape of one’s foot, their body weight, their activity level, and the surface they walk on.  All these factors make for a very confusing picture in respect to selecting a good shoe, but there are a few ways around this. 

The first place to start is with one’s foot ‘structure’.  Foot structure simply refers to what shape of foot one has in relationship to the ground.  Some people have flat feet, some have high arches, and some are in between.  Those with very flat feet and high arches will be able to easily see what their structure is when they stand.  Those who have more subtle forms of either one of those structures may not be able to necessarily appreciate that when looking at their feet when standing, and may assume they have a ‘normal’ foot structure.  This is because many of those changes are hard to externally see, but a biomechanical exam by a podiatrist and/or an x-ray of the foot taken standing will show the true structure.  The foot’s position, incidentally, when one is seated, gives a false picture as most of the structural changes of the foot occur during standing, except for those with severe and rigidly flat feet that can be seen when seated.

Once foot structure can be determined, a few rules can be applied to shoe selection.  In general, those with flat feet need shoes that are more structurally stable.  This kind of shoe is more rigid across the bottom, and should only bend in the part of the shoe where the ball of the foot rests, not the middle of the shoe.  The shoe should also not be ‘twistable’ like a towel- it should resist attempts to twist it around.  These areas of firmness can help resist the arch collapse seen in flatter feet.  The area on the back of the heel should also be firm, and resists efforts to push it in so that it can more firmly cradle the more flexible heel area a person with a flatter foot has.  The bottom of the shoe should also be wide, hourglass shaped soles are not helpful for flat feet as the foot will spill over the narrow part of the sole.  Obviously, all these components work best in an enclosed oxford style shoe, or more ideally an athletic shoe.  Other shoe types can provide some elements of this support, including newer forms of sandals that are designed with firmer arch beds that cradle the arch better.  Shoes that are to be avoided in this category are flip flop sandals, flimsy cloth or canvas shoes, and most types of women’s  flats.  High arched feet, on the other hand, need much more cushioning, as they cannot absorb the shock generated by the ground contact when walking (something done when the foot is able to normally flatten more).  The shoe for a high arched foot needs to have a nicely cushioned sole, usually with greater thickness, to displace the shock away from the foot.  It should also be deeper to accommodate for the greater depth a high arched foot has within a shoe.  These characteristics are relatively easy to achieve in an athletic shoe, but are harder to find in a dressier style.  When selecting a dressier style of shoe for high arches, one has to more seriously consider the thickness of the sole material, as well as the softness of the material.  It should be a denser rubber or foam composite material, and should be stable as well.  People who have feet that fall in somewhere between flat and high arched should use a stable shoe similar to what one would wear if they were flat footed, as a stable shoe will provide better protection against foot fatigue over the course of a long day standing on hard surfaces.

The next thing to consider when trying to keep one’s feet comfortable all day is the need for inserts into the shoes.  Shoes alone can make a big difference in general foot comfort, but rarely do they actually contact the foot to the same degree that an insert in the shoe will.  Selecting an insert is a relatively simple process.  People with very flat feet generally need a rigid custom made orthotic to stabilize the arch and keep the foot from fatiguing after standing all day.  People with more moderate flat feet can benefit from either a custom orthotic or a semi-rigid over-the-counter insert like Footsteps or Powerstep Pro.  Those with high arches benefit from either a well padded custom orthotic or a well padded over-the-counter insert, of which there are multiple brands.  Those who have foot structures in between can benefit from over-the-counter inserts in general.  I do recommend that my patients avoid hard plastic inserts from retail insert stores, as these hard inserts are not made specifically for a single foot like hard custom orthotics.  Because of this, they may eventually irritate the foot more than they help as the ridges of the arch will not match the foot shape exactly.  Given the excessively high price one usually pays for the inserts in these stores, a custom orthotic can be manufactured, often for the same or less.  I also recommend that thin inserts like flat gel or foam inserts not be used for support or shock absorption, as they easily compress down to nothing when stepped on, and essentially are only a replacement for the sock liner padding that already comes in the shoe.

One other factor that needs to be considered is one’s bodyweight.  For many, this is a sensitive topic, but it does have a factor in general foot comfort by the end of the day.  Obviously, people who are of normal weight or mildly overweight do not need to consider their weight in selecting shoes.  Those who are very overweight or obese do have to consider their weight.  In cases of very heavy bodyweight, regardless of the foot structure, the shoes that one chooses needs to be very stable, with strong rigid material in the sole to help resist the pressure on the foot from the bodyweight.  Inserts in the shoes that provide additional rigid support are also very helpful in stabilizing the feet and improving comfort throughout the day.

I will continue this discussion next post, where I will discuss what role activity level and walking surfaces actually have on the feet and the life of the shoe, and whether some foot discomfort needs additional treatment beyond simply good shoes and inserts.

Flat Feet Explained: Part 2 Non-Surgical Treatment

flat foot

This week, I am continuing my discussion on the treatment of flat feet in teens and adults. We are now ready to discuss treatment options. In basic terms, there are two options for treatment, as there are two basic types of flat feet.  The options are supportive shoes and prescription orthotics inserts, and surgical reconstruction.  The two basic types of flat feet are flexible and rigid.  Flexible flat feet (which are most common), can be pushed and held out of a flat position.  Rigid flat feet are stuck in that position, due primarily to inflexibility of a deformity that is mostly bone in nature.  Today I will discuss shoes and inserts, which are primarily helpful for most cases of flexible flat feet (but not rigid flat feet).

Over the last fifty to sixty years, our understanding of how the foot functions mechanically has grown significantly.  The mechanics of the foot are complex, and not easily measurable by direct means given the complexity with which the various joints work together to push us forward.  Our current understanding of this function is advanced, but not perfect.  Regardless, the development of the field of foot biomechanics has led to the development of the prescription functional orthotic, a device that has made it possible for countless people to enjoy their lives foot pain-free, or at least with considerably less pain.  This device is not the same as over-the-counter arch supports found in stores and TV commercials nationwide, and it is not the same as pricy off-the-shelf plastic inserts masquerading as ‘orthotics’ in numerous national retail chains.  A prescription functional orthotic is a medical device that is made of a plaster mold or 3D laser scan of the foot.  This mold or scan is created while the foot is being stabilized in a mechanically neutral position, otherwise known as the subtalar joint neutral position.  In this position, the foot is neither in a flat orientation, nor a high arch orientation.  It is roughly a position that research has determined should be the model resting position of the foot, when the foot has stopped rotating inward or outward during the walking cycle.  Many different factors contribute to getting the foot in this position, as the foot has numerous ways of compensating for any variation in structure between one part of the foot and another.  A true functional orthotic takes into account these variations, and subtle ways of angling or shaping the insert arise in the prescription process that make the resulting orthotics function even better.  Because these inserts are constructed based on the specific foot mold or scan, and slightly altered based on a complete biomechanical exam of the foot and lower leg, they will actually correct abnormal foot structure in a predictable way.  Over-the-counter inserts simply shove wads of padding or plastic into the arch blindly and hope it will be close enough to give proper support to the foot.  These kinds of inserts are usually comfortable, and do provide more arch support that a shoe alone can give.  However, they do not provide the exact level of foot structure control that a condition like flat feet often requires. Only prescription orthotics can fill this role completely.

The use of prescription orthotics allows for stabilization of the flexible flat foot when worn from shoe to shoe.  This device reduces much of the strain the bottom of a flat foot endures with standing and walking, and it can indirectly slow down the progression of flat feet related deformities, like bunions and hammertoes, by correcting the underlying cause.  The proper choice of shoe also contributes greatly to this treatment.  In general, people with flexible flat feet need a shoe constructed with that foot structure in mind.  A better choice of shoe is one that is only flexible at the ball (front) of the foot, and not in the middle of the foot. It should have a stiff sole, a stiff area that cradles the heel, and should be wide enough that the sides are not tight against the foot when it widens out as it flattens.  Most importantly, it should fit the orthotic and be comfortable to wear after many hours of activity.

For the vast majority of people with flat feet, a prescription orthotic and supportive shoe will be sufficient treatment, much like eyeglasses or contacts are sufficient for those with vision impairment. However, those that have rigidly flattened feet are not generally helped by orthotics, as the foot must be flexible for the orthotic to change foot structure.  There are also times with flexible flat feet in which orthotics do not provide enough support to control pain symptoms.  In these cases, the physical structure of the foot needs to be permanently changed to relieve pain and improve foot function.  Next post, we will discuss surgery to treat flat feet, and some of the advantages and pitfalls of that approach.

Flat Feet Explained: Part One

flat foot

Over the next couple of weeks I would like to discuss the nature of painful flat feet in the older child/teen and adult, and share some of my thoughts on treatment of this foot deformity.  Since this is a fairly involved topic, splitting the discussion up will help keep the post from getting too ‘wordy‘.

To start with, I would like to explain why we use the word ‘deformity’ to describe flat feet.  Flat feet are simply a normal anatomic variation of the human foot, as much as ‘normal’ or ‘high’ arches are.  It is likely mostly genetic, and passed to our children.  This variation is quite common, but does pose a unique challenge to modern humans, who tend to wear shoes most of their lives to protect the foot skin from the dangers of civilized living.  In populations where shoes are not worn, the foot’s muscle and support system is usually able to adapt to this flat structure from an early age.  By wearing shoes, we take away some of this adaptation.  However, the danger to the foot by walking barefoot in public or on concrete, gravel, and other hard surfaces far outweighs the lack of structural adaptation, and the notion that one should walk barefoot to keep this ‘natural’ process active is potentially harmful.  Unfortunately, because of the infrastructure we have paved our ground with for thousands of years, we are far better off in shoes.  However, those of us with flat feet must now deal with the issues that come with an unadjusted foot structure.  Even though flat feet are not a deformity in the same vein as an extra toe or clubfoot, we still refer to it as a deformity because in essence it functions as a foot deformity by being the source of numerous foot problems over time.

The foot problems that develop due to flat feet are generally due to instability that is present in the foot when it is allowed to over flatten.  This instability will gradually cause numerous other actual foot deformities by forcing the foot’s muscle and support system to change the way it anatomically is supposed to function.  The change in the way certain muscles and tendons pull on the foot, and the change in how ligaments and joints are positioned, will often lead to foot deformities like bunions and hammertoes.  These deformities in and of themselves can become painful over time in certain people.  However, of more importance to this discussion is the role flat feet play in causing tissue injury, which leads to chronic pain.  When flat feet are subjected to lengthy or strenuous activity, the overly flexible nature of this foot type can allow other parts of the foot to become overly stretched and strained.  This includes the plantar fascia, a thick cord on the bottom of the foot that is the source of the common heel pain when it is injured, as well as a large tendon under the inner side of the ankle called the posterior tibial tendon.  When this tendon is injured and not treated properly, it can lead to a debilitating degenerative process that can actually allow the foot to flatten further.  Other injuries directly related to flat feet include nerve inflammation in between the long bones of the foot known as a neuronal, as well as various arthritic conditions.

Since we now understand how and why feet are flat in some people, as well as what problems they can cause, we should move on to what is typically done to treat this condition so that it does not lead to pain and suffering.  This can be done by modifying the foot structure externally (better shoes and orthotics inserts), or by physically changing the internal structure of the foot (reconstructive surgery).  On the next couple of posts, I will discuss the reasoning behind each approach, and what I feel is the appropriate situation for either external or surgical treatment.