For decades, women have been warned about the damage high heels can cause to the feet and joints. But it seems there may be even more reasons to ditch the stilettos.
Last week, Helen Sewell, a communication coach, told MPs high heels are costing British businesses £260 million a year as women take sick leave for related conditions.
‘Wearing heels has a serious impact on your ability to think properly, your ability to breathe properly and your ability to deliver an executive presence,’ she told the Commons committee inquiry into the effect of dress codes in the workplace.
There have been a number of studies identifying health risks associated with wearing heels long-term.
Last week, Helen Sewell, a communication coach, told MPs high heels are costing British businesses £260 million a year as women take sick leave for related conditions
While wearing heels initially strengthens the ankle muscles, long-term the same muscles are weakened, leading to injury, reported phsyiologists at the University of North Carolina in the U.S last year.
Previous studies have suggested high heels can lead to problems including hammer toes (where the toes become permanently bent), muscle fatigue and osteoarthritis (‘wear and tear’ of the joints).
There may also be a link between vertiginous footwear and cancer, according to a leading cancer specialist, Dr David Agus, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California.
In his book A Short Guide To A Long Life — which lists the simple steps people should take to reduce their risk of cancer and long-term illness — Professor Agus recommends avoiding heels and spending more time in comfortable shoes.
He argues that wearing uncomfortable shoes every day doesn’t just cause unnecessary pain — and damage joints — it actively triggers low-level inflammation as the body struggles with being forced into an unnatural posture and gait.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process. Whether it’s puffiness around a splinter or swelling around a joint, the process is triggered when the body encounters harmful stimuli such as bacteria, injury or irritants.
However, scientists now believe if low levels of inflammation are allowed to become chronic the process can become highly destructive.
What happens is that the chemical messengers in the body trigger a low-grade smouldering response which, without us noticing, damages tissues throughout the body.
Wearing heels all day, every day, can create inflammation in the crushed toes, the balls of the feet and rubbed heels
Although the science is still unclear, it seems the same chemicals which are critical for the healing process can inadvertently cause damage — one example is that they appear to contribute to hardening of the arteries.
‘Certain kinds of inflammation have been linked to our most troubling degenerative diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and can dramatically increase cancer risk,’ says Professor Agus.
He says that although cancer may be caused by damaged or faulty genes encoded within our DNA, anything that damages DNA or hinders its natural repair process can increase the risk of cancer.
And Professor Agus believes that if your body has to deal with ongoing, chronic inflammation it can shut down its DNA repair process to concentrate on the inflammation instead.
‘When the body’s DNA repair shop is closed, it leaves us vulnerable to cancer and other diseases,’ he says.
Wearing heels all day, every day, can create inflammation in the crushed toes, the balls of the feet and rubbed heels.
The impact can travel right up the leg to trigger joint degeneration and arthritis in the knee. High heels can also affect the ankles, hips and even the muscles of the lower back.
The higher the heel, the more discomfort you are likely to experience, and the more you push on regardless, the greater the risk.
Any heel over 3in high will inevitably tilt the body forwards, which means you have to lean back to compensate, putting your pelvis out of alignment and compressing the spine.
A lower heel may cause less damage (wedges give the impression of height while keeping the food relatively flat) but the problem of inflammation is easily compounded if, say, the toes are squashed into tiny points at the front.
Professor Agus’s approach is based on his conviction that cancer is not something you ‘get’ but something your body ‘does’.
Time to ditch the heels – Professor Agus believes that if your body has to deal with ongoing, chronic inflammation, which is often caused by wearing heels, it can shut down its DNA repair process to concentrate on healing the inflammation instead
He believes we are all ‘cancering’ most of the time, with mutant genes constantly triggering abnormal cell growth in different parts of the body. That’s fine, he says, because when we are healthy, our bodies deal with this.
‘Cancer is like a sleeping giant lying dormant in all of us,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes he briefly awakens, inciting a collection of odd cells (a tumour), but in most cases, before long the giant will be lulled back to sleep by the body’s arsenal of artful mechanisms.’
Problems only occur when something happens to weaken our defence mechanism, and high heels — he says — are an unnecessary hindrance to optimal health.
So although high heels might not actually cause cancer, by wearing them all the time you could be unwittingly hindering your own natural cancer-fighting abilities.
It is impossible to say how high is too high, or how long it is safe to wear them, he says, but adds: ‘If your heels hurt or limit your movement, if you find your feet ache or throb at the end of the day, then stop wearing those shoes.’