The hidden cost of inexpensive flip-flops

Published: 2011-07-07 09:37:29

  Flip-flops, the traditional, inexpensive sandal of the summer: while they come in all different colors, shapes and sizes, though, they do not come with enough arch support for hardworking feet.

Dr. Michael Kowalski, a podiatrist based out of Chilton Memorial Hospital with an office in Wayne, calls them "lazy shoes" because they're so easy to slip on. And while teenagers seem to be the biggest section of the population that wear them, it's 35-year-old to 50-year-old women who have the most problems wearing them.

"Younger people tend to have fewer problems because they wear flip-flops, mostly because they can compensate for the lack of support easier," said Kowalski.

When women get older, sometimes gaining unwanted weight, they cannot compensate so well for the lack of support. Their feet become tired, they develop heel pain, and the problems start to travel up their leg in the form of knee and hip pain, eventually becoming gnawing back pain.

One would think that such eventual pain would stop teens and women from insisting on wearing the unsupportive sandals, but the doctor said we live in a society where people are "slaves to fashion."

"If women are amputating their pinky toes in New York City to be able to wear pointier-toed shoes, you can see how it would be hard to convince women that wearing flip-flops is not such a good idea," he said. "They key is to wear them in moderation."

Even in moderation, though, there is the type of foot to consider. People with higher arches can have just as many problems as people with flatter feet, said the doctor.

At New Jersey Spine & Rehabilitation, a minimally invasive spine and pain intervention center located onWanaque Avenue in Pompton Lakes, Dr. Richard Kaul said long-term use of flip-flops causes long-term back issues.

"Sandals do not provide support to the arches of the feet," said Kaul. "Because of this, the ligaments between the bones of the foot become strained. The foot muscles begin to compensate for this lack of support and ligaments and tendons become swollen and strained."

Improper support of the arch of the foot changes the gait or the stride, explains Kaul, and this causes the impact of walking to be improperly absorbed by the lower extremities, causing pain. This prolonged imbalance and improper absorption can strain the lower back.

Not all sandals are bad, though. Kowalski said he starts wearing sandals in April and doesn't stop until October.

"I wear Tevas because they have a great arch support," he said.

Kowalski recently had a 16-year old girl come in complaining of foot pain and after realizing she was wearing flip-flops with no arch support, he recommended Tevas to her. He recently saw her at graduation and she remarked she couldn't believe how comfortable her feet are now as opposed to before.

Kowalski said even a sandal with a strap over the front of the foot, from one side of the ankle to the other, is helpful in stabilizing the foot.

"The strap fools the foot into thinking it's in a tied shoe and your foot doesn't try to compensate. Therefore, your gait is more normal," he said.

The issue with flip-flops, in addition to having no front strap, is the way they force the toes to grip down or "claw," said Kowalski. "This raises the arch height and when you're doing this all day, the muscles go into spasm. Pain is the product of this over time."

While prolonged use of many fashionable shoes, such as 5-inch stiletto heels, can cause pain, shorter periods of use can be just fine, said the doctor.