WASHINGTON — No woman wears high heels to be comfortable. But those stilettos can do more than just cause sore feet.
Several small studies indicate that those who wear heels constantly may be increasing their risk of joint problems — even arthritis — down the road.
In the latest study, researchers at Stanford University measured how healthy women walked while wearing shoes with different heel heights, ranging from a flat to a 3.5-inch heel.
They noticed that when the participants walked in high heels, their knees bent in an awkward way, putting extra strain on the joints and perhaps increasing the risk of osteoarthritis.
The study — published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research — was small and it did not follow up with participants to see if any of them actually developed joint problems.
Dr. Brian Murtaugh, a physician with the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, says it is clear that more research is needed. But at the very least, he says, wearing high heels can stress the knee and set a woman up for trouble.
He says heels pitch the body forward, prompting the joints to make adjustments.
“When you look at force going through the knees when walking, you see as the heel height goes up or increases, there is more force that is put through the knees,” he explains.
Murtaugh says the damage is most evident in women who have been wearing high heels for years on a regular basis. He says joint related problems creep up “usually from wear and tear and stress on the joints over time.”
It is a medical fact that women are more prone to osteoarthritis in the knees than men, and have knee replacement surgery in far greater numbers.
There are several theories as to why, including difference in physical build and hormones. Footwear could ultimately be proven to be another piece of the puzzle.
High heels are already known to cause all kinds of foot problems, and Murtaugh says women need to think carefully before reaching for those stilettos. “Try to limit how much you wear your high heels during the day and wear them when you might not be doing as much walking.”
He advises a sensible approach, possibly opting for a lower heel, a shoe with a thicker sole or with softer insoles to reduce the impact on the joints. Another tip: Gently stretch the Achilles tendon from time to time, as it tends to respond to heel height.
Also, Murtaugh stresses that they are other documented risk factors for osteoarthritis that women need to keep in mind. Extra weight puts stress on the knees, and inactivity can make matters worse.
He says the best ways to protect your knees are the old standbys: maintain a healthy weight and engage in regular exercise. But it’s also not a bad idea to swap out those high heels for shoes that are good not just your feet, but also your knees, he says.