High Heel Shoe Wearers Have Shorter Achilles Tendons

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If you habitually wear high heels during the week, you may have found that switching to flats for the weekend results in calf and heel pain. Researchers have found that wearing high heels can cause changes to occur in the length of the calf muscle fibers and the Achilles’ tendons that increases the risk of stiffness and pain.

Professor Marco Narici of the Manchester Metropolitan University recruited a group of 11 heel wearing volunteers (two inches or higher for five days a week or an average of 60 hours a week) and 9 non-heel wearers to study their feet and legs with MRI and ultrasound. The women ranged in age from 20 to 50 years old, with an average age of 43.

While the MRI did not reveal any difference in the size of the calf muscles between the two groups, an ultrasound found the length of the muscle fibers to be 13% shorter in those who regularly wore high heeled shoes. The women who wore high heels also had 22% thicker Achilles’ tendons, which attaches the calf muscle to the heel.

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Wearing heels cause the foot to point down more than normal. Changing this angle, such as when women switch to flats, causes the calf muscles and tendons to lengthen, increasing tension, reducing the ankle’s active range of motion, and causing discomfort and pain. Shorter tendons and muscle fibers also impacts a woman’s ability to walk fast and run and may increase risk of injury.

Brendon Brown, president of the Australasian Podiatry Council, suggests that women who consistently wear high heels should give themselves a break. “Don’t wear high heels to and from the train station, for example. Strap into a lower pair of heels,” he says.

Also, high-heel wearing women should also perform stretching exercises to prevent the fascicle fibers and Achilles’ fibers from shortening. Dr. Carol Ewing Garber, PhD and exercise physiologist at Columbia University, suggests the following:

• While sitting, loop a resistance band around the top of your foot (a belt or towel works too). Gently pull back on the band while pushing against it with your toes.
• Stand on a step, facing up. Keep your toes on the step and slowly lower your heels until you feel your calf muscles stretching.
• Slowly make a circle with your toes, alternately flexing and pointing your foot.
• Try to pick things up with your toes. (This will help strengthen your feet.)

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