Are your summer sandals wreaking havoc on your health?

The warm summer months were made for flip-flops, flats and sandals, but are we putting fashion ahead of the health of our feet?

By Jackie Middleton

Are your summer sandals wreaking havoc on your health?

The summer wouldn’t feel complete without a pair of strappy sandals or colourful flip-flops. According to Dr. Roy Mathews, a Vancouver Podiatrist, his clinic sees an increase in patients complaining of foot pain during the warm summer months. “During the winter, women wear better, more supportive shoes,” he says. Once the snow has melted and patio season is back in vogue, we’re desperate to don footwear that’s airy, less constrained—and less supportive. While flip-flops, flats and sandals accessorize the perfect summer outfit, did you know that they can also do serious damage to the bones and joints in your feet?

The problem with flip-flops

They’re cute; they scream summer—but they’re also really tough on your feet. “With flip-flops, you’re walking on something that’s just a flat piece of rubber with no support,” says Mathews. Flip-flop fans may forget that their favourite footwear was created to be worn at the beach or pool. They weren’t designed for hours spent walking in the city. It’s the flip-flop’s no-frills design that contributes to summer’s most common foot injury, metatarsalgia. An extremely painful condition, metatarsalgia is inflammation of the ball of the foot. “To walk in flip-flops, you must grip the toe piece with your toes. While flexing your toes down, you’re driving the ball of your foot into the ground,” says Mathews. “You’re using muscles out of sequence and with no support, you get pain across the ball of the foot and in its joints—the metatarsal joints.” Left untreated, metatarsalgia can result in stress fractures of the metatarsal joints and several weeks in a cast—or worse, a complete bone fracture that requires surgery.

If you’re not experiencing foot pain and refuse to part with your flip-flops, Mathews suggests that you invest in a pair that has a stiffer sole, a bit of an arch and a rocker bottom such as the Fit Flop brand. And don’t keep wearing the same pair year after year. “The worst thing [for your feet] is to wear a pair that’s completely beaten up,” says Mathews. If you’re going to wear flip-flops and flexible shoes in the summer, buy new ones every year.”

Think flats are better? Think again.

Many women who steer clear of flip-flops believe that flats are a better, healthier option for their feet. They couldn’t be more wrong. “I don’t think there’s anything positive about flats,” says Mathews. Like flip-flops, flats are floppy and unsupportive of your feet. Frequent wearers often suffer from metatarsalgia as the ball of the foot and its adjacent joints receive a pounding with each step. And if you have foot problems already, you could be in line for even more discomfort. “People who need arch support in their shoe such as flat-footed people can get strains like plantar fasciitis or heel spur syndrome,” says Mathews.

Still love your flats despite your aching feet? Mathews says that there are options available to help support your foot in a bad shoe. The days of bulky or awkward orthotics stuffed into a shoe are long gone. “Orthotics can be made from graphite and fiberglass—they’re as thin as a credit card, so you hardly notice them. They’ll create a little more support and that’s better than wearing nothing inside these shoes,” he says.

The case for sandals

In the battle for summer footwear supremacy, sandals are actually the best bets for your feet. “They’re typically more supportive than a flip-flop. Sandals like Birkenstock and Mephistos have built-in arch support and a little bit of cupping to the heel, so they have more support,” says Mathews.

Look for sandals with a sole that doesn’t bend too much. A stiffer sole as well as straps that cross the foot will help distribute the pressure on your foot more evenly. The heel and arch will take some of the weight, so that the ball of your foot and its sensitive joints don’t receive the full impact of each step.

Podiatrists would prefer that people wear more supportive footwear in the summer, but they know that for fashion-sake, patients won’t necessary listen. “Fashion is what fashion is,” says Mathews, “but if you’re suffering in pain, you need to wear something more supportive, like a running shoe. If pain lasts for more than a few days, you should immediately seek help. Too many people with pain in their foot do nothing for weeks and [they end up with] a fracture.” If you expect to be doing lots of walking or standing, put the health of your feet first—before fashion—and step out into a pain-free summer.