Flip Flops: Are They Worth the Pain?

By Kateri Kane, PT, DPT

Well, now that summer is upon us, the flip flops are coming out.  Unfortunately, that means that foot pain or other problems may soon follow.  So what does this mean for you?  Should you never wear flip flops? Not quite.

Flip flops have been around for centuries and, prior to flip flops or shoes, man had to walk barefoot.  Our feet are designed for walking without the support of shoes…on dirt, sand, and grass.  Our feet are NOT designed to walk without support on asphalt or concrete, but that’s what people do every day when they wear flip flops on every surface.  These stiff surfaces don’t “give” like natural surfaces do, so your feet need the assistance of shoes to cushion the impact of stepping and running.

So what do shoes give that flip flops don’t? A simple flip flop is essentially a piece of rubber with a strap on it.  There is no arch support, very little cushioning, and no protection along the sides of the feet to prevent injury.  Shoes, tennis shoes in particular, give a more structured frame with a greater amount of arch support, cushioning, and support along the sides of the feet to assist in preventing injury like rolling the ankle.  Now, not EVERY shoe is equal when it comes to support, nor is EVERY flip flop.  Some flip flops have a deep heel cup, high arch support, and comfortable toe support, but you won’t be finding this kind for $1.  The more supportive flip flops tend to be the more expensive ones.

So what kinds of problems can flip flop wearing cause? Excessive wearing of flip flops can result in:

  • inflammation of the Achilles tendon, heel, and arch
  • heel calluses from lack of cushioning
  • fungal infections if not properly cleaned
  • knee, hip, and back pain due to misalignment from a change in stance posture
  • falls, sprained ankles, or fractures due to the unsteady surface and limited support
  • foot cramping from gripping with the toes to keep the sandal on
  • blisters from the straps rubbing the foot
  • cuts, scrapes, and bruises from limited protection

The key to this list is excessive wear.  Moderate flip flop usage is not necessarily a bad thing. Flip flops can assist with preventing problems including fungal infections when used in locker rooms and protecting the feet from hot sand at the beach.  Some individuals, however, should try to avoid flip flops all together.  These individuals include those with diabetes because of commonly having poor circulation and decreased feeling in the feet which may result in injury and infection.  A cut on the foot of an individual with diabetes will take longer to heal and more serious infection could lead to amputation of the limb.  Individuals with balance problems should try to avoid flip flops due to the limited support provided for the foot and ankle thus putting them at a greater fall risk.  Flip flops may also aggravate issues in individuals who have a history of foot problems including plantar fasciitis, a high or low arch, etc.  These individuals should, therefore, avoid wearing unstable shoes like flip flops.

For the best safety when wearing flip flops try to avoid uneven surfaces, wash your feet thoroughly after wearing them, and check the surface of your skin for any injuries that may result in infection.  The American Podiatric Medical Association suggests looking for a pair that is high quality leather, sturdy and bends at the ball of the foot, and fits without the foot hanging off of the back.  They also suggest that you buy a new pair if there are signs of excessive wear and check your feet for any irritation.  As a therapist, I am not saying that flip flops are the most terrible thing in the world to wear, but you should be aware of the risks involved.  Excessive wear while performing activities from repeatedly walking on hard surfaces to jumping sports are going to put you at a higher risk for developing problems in the feet and elsewhere in the body.

If you have any questions on this topic or any others in which you are interested, feel free to leave any questions, comments, or suggestions. Thank you for reading and stay active.




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