Over thousands of years, the human race has evolved from walking barefoot on soft ground to wearing shoes on hard surfaces. The arches in our feet are designed to navigate soft terrain, and the presence of high arches in contemporary humans is linked to natural selection for long-distance running. Even in modern times, our arches serve an important purpose in helping us balance and flexibility while allowing us to run, walk, jump, and move. Wearing shoes with proper support will protect you from uncomfortable conditions and chronic pain.
Understanding Foot Structure:
The feet are some of the most complex structures of the body, with 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles. Essential for an active lifestyle, healthy feet offer support, balance, and a foundation for good posture. For centuries, humans navigated outdoor environments with ease on bare feet. Designed to traverse soft surfaces like dirt, grass, and sand, the arches in your feet support and cushion your steps, providing equilibrium and stability in a variety of terrains.
With the invention of hardwood floors and cement, we have transitioned to bearing weight on solid surfaces with no give. Because of the considerable stress on feet whose structure favors cushion, it is crucial to contour your feet with supportive shoes or insert arch supports. Collapsed arches, also known as flat feet, is a preventable condition resulting in pain and compromised foot structure from lack of proper support. Not only do flat feet cause pain, but it results in overcompensation from the rest of the body and leads to problems.
Flat feet are responsible for general musculoskeletal pain from poor posture and unnatural gait that leads to joint problems. As the entire foot contacts the ground after an arch collapses, body stability becomes compromised, and other areas compensate for the lack of support. Collapsed arches often cause the lower legs to rotate inward, which affects the entire leg and the hips leading to chronic pain in the legs and back. Overall, it may seem like the arches play a small part in the complex structures of your feet, but in reality, improper support can lead to foot pain and lower body problems that affect your overall health.
Three types of arches determine how functional your feet are in propelling you forward and evenly distributing your body weight.
1.) Flat-- Occurring during developmental years, due to injury, or simply because of wear and tear over time, a flat arch is defined by the entirety of your foot touching the ground when you step. It leads to chronic pain and should be addressed.
2.) Normal -- Specialized support is not typically needed for a normal arch. The feet distribute body weight sufficiently and slightly roll inward during physical activity.
3.) High -- A structural abnormality typically resulting from other conditions, high arches can cause whole-body muscle and joint pain. This means people often need extra cushioning and specialized support to absorb shock effectively.
Identifying your arch type will help you find shoes and inserts that support your feet. Performing the "wet test," where you wet your foot and step on cardboard, will allow you to compare your footprint to an arch chart. The fuller your footprint, the flatter your feet! A podiatrist is a great resource if you are currently experiencing foot problems and want detailed, personalized care.
Shoes and Arch Support:
Now that you know the basics of your foot's anatomy, what can you do to support your arches? It's no surprise that your feet's protection from injury starts with your shoes. Unfortunately, society tends to prioritize fashion over functionality in today's market, so finding shoes with proper support can be challenging. Rather than getting discouraged during your hunt for appropriate shoes, remember that arch support is essential for both foot and overall health.
There are two easy tests to determine whether or not your shoe offers adequate arch support. First, hold your shoe horizontally and twist the toe away from your body while twisting the heel towards you. The harder it is to twist, the stronger and more supportive the shoe. If it easily twists, consider finding a different type of shoe. The second test involves pushing the heel counter at the back of the shoe. An easily collapsable heel counter offers little security and support for your foot compared to one that is sturdy and difficult to push down.
In addition to proper shoes, arch supports, also known as orthotics, are an excellent way to maximize support and ensure cushioning for your feet. They are the most commonly prescribed non-invasive treatment for foot problems, and their benefits include a more even distribution of weight and pressure, high levels of support, reduction of joint pain, and more.
Arch supports in the treatment of knee, hip, and back ailments are not uncommon. The contoured nature of the inserts reduces weight on the primary pressure points in the heel and ball of the foot. Redistributing some pressure reduces overuse and pain in the heel and ball of the feet. Filling the gaps in your arches gives your feet a more stable surface area for balance, weight-bearing, and movement. Since your feet are the foundation of your entire body, shoe inserts benefit the whole lower half of your body.
Though many purchase arch supports following an injury or chronic pain, inserts are an effective preventative measure for future foot problems. Supports prevent foot ailments like fallen arches and plantar fasciitis.
The Bottom Line:
Whether you are actively experiencing foot pain, noticing an arch abnormality, or want to prevent future issues, proper shoes and arch supports are necessary for good foot health. Supports are not one-size-fits-all, so it is crucial to consider your footwear and arch type. Generic and custom orthotics are available in materials like gel, wool, memory foam, and more. Talk to your doctor about how to best support your arches and get back to enjoying an active and pain-free life!