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What a Return to the Office May Mean for Your Feet

For some, trading in slippers for more formal footwear will require a little conditioning.

With many businesses issuing the clarion call for a return to the office, workers may soon be getting signals from their aching feet that a return to more formal footwear – or any footwear at all, for that matter – was not in the plans.

“Dress shoes can cause foot pain,” says Dr. Rachel Shakked, a Rothman Orthopaedics at Jefferson Health orthopedic surgeon specializing in foot and ankle surgery. “They’re obviously not as comfortable as sneakers and most people who work in an office have to achieve a certain appearance of dress – and sneakers don’t usually fit into that.”

Not only do sneakers not (usually) fit into traditional workplace dress, but neither do those Crocs, Birkenstocks, Uggs and slippers our pandemic feet got used to.

As offices have reopened, many who have pivoted back to so-called hard shoes have found that their feet no longer fit into their pre-pandemic footwear. That’s because nonstop wearing of comfortable, less supportive footwear can make some people’s feet bigger, Dr. Shakked says. “What happens is that your arch can drop, but only some people are predisposed to this.  So people with naturally good support structure can walk around barefoot their whole lives and not have any issues. But for the vast majority of us, our unsupported arches can gradually drop, which causes our feet to get wider and longer.”

A lack of shoe support can increase the risk of overuse injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, which often causes pain in the heel of the foot. Limited shoe support can also trigger structural changes to the feet, which may aggravate problems for some people such as bunions.

In addition, walking around the home barefoot magnifies the chance of stubbing a vulnerable toe on a piece of furniture, or tripping awkwardly over a pet, potentially leading to an increase in toe and foot fractures.

There’s also a chance that your foot problems stem from resuming normal life too quickly after two years of relatively little activity. Doing too much too soon on feet that have undergone atrophy from inactivity can cause even minor foot injuries to turn into a bigger problem.

“I have seen an uptick in plantar fasciitis and foot and ankle tendonitis, which I directly correlate to patients getting back to work again,” says Dr. Elena Wellens, a podiatric surgeon at Rothman Orthopaedics at Jefferson Health. “The majority of these patients were either barefoot or wearing unsupportive shoes while home and were not on their feet very much. This sudden change back to weight bearing again is perceived as a new stressor by the body and can create discomfort. I’ve especially noticed this in my patients with flat feet or very high arch feet.”

Feet Don’t Fail Me Now

To get our feet back into shape, Drs. Wellens and Shakked both suggest exercises, including calf stretches, as well as rolling a golf ball in the arch of the foot, or a tennis ball under the sole of the foot, which can relax the leg and foot muscles and take stress off of the feet and ankles.

Plantar fasciitis is inflammation of the thick band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes, which causes a stabbing heel pain. Unsupportive shoes or going barefoot, a dramatic increase in physical activity, exercise that puts lots of pressure on your heels (such as running or dancing) and obesity can all contribute to plantar fasciitis.

Mark Williams stretching his foot with the help of a small ball
Rolling a ball in the arch of the foot can relax leg and foot muscles. (Photo courtesy: Carly Williams)

Achilles tendinitis occurs when the tendon that runs down the back of the leg between the calf and heel is overused. The injury is common among runners and athletes, but can affect anyone who dramatically and suddenly changes activity level.

Applying ice to the bottom of the feet – a frozen water bottle works well – can be helpful for treating plantar fasciitis. “Ice is the best way to counteract inflammation,” Dr. Shakked notes.

Where’d You Get Those Shoes?

After working from and being at home so much, we can’t expect our feet to go from wearing slippers at home to jumping into a pair of shoes that haven’t been worn in ages. A good start to getting our feet acclimated to shoes is to start wearing more supportive shoes around the house. For her patients with a flat or higher arch foot, Dr. Wellens recommends a supportive shoe or sandal with an arch, such as Birkenstocks. “Certain foot types such as flat or high arch feet do not have the natural ability to absorb shock properly,” Dr. Wellens notes. “So unsupportive shoes or bare feet can cause pain since these patients do not have a structurally sound foot to begin with.”

For returning to the office, Dr. Shakked recommends low-profile heels or platform shoes. “The very high heels put a lot of pressure on the front of your foot, and that can cause a number of issues,” she notes. “Lower heels are better, half-inch to two inches. If you’re looking for a little bit of height, platform shoes are really good because you get that height without increasing the angle too much.”

For some, the closest you can get to something that has the support and comfort of a good sneaker, the better, Dr. Shakked says. “Those are the shoes that offer you shock absorption, so if that’s at all possible for your job, I think that’s the best bet.” Dr. Shakked also recommends that you always make sure the width of the shoe, and the overall fit in general, are on the mark by going into the store and actually get measured. “Don’t just order shoes online, without trying them on,” she notes.

[Main photo credit: iStock.com/RossHelen]

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