Step in the Right Direction: Healthier, High-Tech High Heels

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shutterstock_264980645 Woman kissing high heel via Shutterstock

There's a well-worn belief that in the name of fashion, high-heel shoe manufacturers overlook the inherent dangers of the shoes that they make. But this month, in a welcome break with that tradition, one California entrepreneur is taking strides to lessen the disparity between style and comfort, while giving womens' health concerns a leg up.

Dolly Singh, founder of Thesis Couture, has invented a new high-tech heel that's supposed to more evenly disperse a women’s weight across the entire foot. It's done through a plastic platform built into the shoe, which just came to market. This construction is in contrast to the traditional high-heel shoe engineered with a narrow, metal strip that forces a woman's weight onto her toes.

The team assembled by Singh, a former employer of Space X, the rocket ship company, "used structural engineering principles to redistribute the load on the ball and toes of the feet, and space age plastics and rubber for the shoe’s frame and heel," the San Francisco Chronicle reported. "Combined, the advances will offer better shock absorption and arch support."

A more stable construction claims to make wearing these shoes a lot less painful — "[t]he load on the ball of the foot is reduced from 80 percent to 50 percent, and the shoe’s platform reduces shock by 50 percent," Singh told the Chronicle — not to mention to help reduce the foot damage they are known to cause. And high heels can do a lot of damage.

A 2012 paper published in the Journal of Biomechanics studied the relationship between lower extremity joint movements during high-heeled walking, as compared with barefoot walking at identical speeds. Results showed an increase in bone-on-bone force — think "pressure" — at the knee joint among the high-heeled group. If worn excessively, researchers say, high heels can put women at greater risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knee.

Walking in high heels also significantly changes muscle activity, because it puts the calf and its associated tendon in a contracted, or shortened, position. Chronic shortening of muscles and tendons can lead to strain, stiffness and inflammation, thus causing damage not only to the affected area, but to the surrounding musculature of the legs and connective tissue.

Anatomical disruption aside, science also tells us that high-heel wearing women are becoming more accident prone. Injuries related to the footwear have nearly doubled across the United States in recent years. According to the data, nearly 125,000 emergency room visits between 2002 and 2012 were caused by high heels and include ankle sprains and foot strains.

Now, to be fair, these shoes were traditionally made for style, not practicality. If women sought only comfort, high heels would never be worn. As for looking good, there's some fun science behind that, too.

High heels can give women the perception of being more attractive to onlookers. In a 2013 study in Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers investigated the profound effects that heels have on a women's gait, or manner of walking. Biomechanical analysis revealed that wearing them reduced stride length, and increased a women's hip swagger and tilt, thus highlighting the sex-specific aspects of a woman's walk.

Regardless, women should be advised to not let their sense of style cripple their ability to walk or stand comfortably.

"Your feet are, quite literally, your base of support. If your feet aren’t happy, nothing above them will be," Dr. Natalie Nevins, an osteopathic physician who specializes in osteopathic and neuromusculoskeletal medicine tells the American Osteopathic Association. "Take a closer look at your shoe selection and take small steps now to prevent big problems later."