What is one of the first things you do when you get home after a long day at work? If you are like many, it’s kick off your shoes and socks. Something about being barefoot tends to take us back to a simpler, more relaxed time, like walking on a beach or playing in the grass barefoot as a child.
There has been a lot more time at home, and many of us have spent much of that time barefoot, in socks only or wearing some type of soft-soled house shoe. New Jersey podiatric surgeon Dr. Marco Ucciferri says several of his patients have contacted his office since stay-at-home directives were put in place. The complaints range from heel and arch pain to injuries caused from walking barefoot around the house.
“When we’re home, we tend to just wear socks, slippers, or even go barefoot,” says Ucciferri. “Now that people are in their homes for an extended period, without realizing it, they could be walking multiple miles a day inside the house. But without proper foot support, they are going to start experiencing pain or discomfort—not only in the feet—but in their back, hips, knees, shoulders and even as high up as the neck.”
Barefoot from the start
When children are learning to walk, parents are told to let them be barefoot. This allows the child to use their muscles and bones in the most natural way and shoes can alter that. Additionally, the nerves in their feet give them feedback that helps their brain keep track of where their body is in space (proprioception).
As children age, they begin to wear shoes and they get used to having all that cushion and support. According to New York board-certified podiatrist and foot surgeon Dr. Bruce Pinker, the extra padding and cushioning can feel great to walk in. However, they may also prevent the proper use of certain muscle groups that actually strengthen the body.
Barefoot can be good
California foot and ankle specialist and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Jonathan Kaplan states, “The most straightforward benefit to barefoot walking is that in theory, walking barefoot more closely restores our ‘natural’ walking pattern, also known as our gait.”
But this is not the only benefit of walking barefoot. According to a Healthline article “Does Walking Barefoot Have Health Benefits?” there are a number of advantages:
- better control of your foot position when it strikes the ground
- improvements in balance, proprioception, and body awareness, which can help with pain relief
- better foot mechanics, which can lead to improved mechanics of the hips, knees, and core
- maintaining appropriate range of motion in your foot and ankle joints as well as adequate strength and stability within your muscles and ligaments
- relief from improperly fitting shoes, which may cause bunions, hammertoes, or other foot deformities
- stronger leg muscles, which support the lower back region
Why would walking barefoot be associated with foot pain?
With all these health benefits of going barefoot, why are some doctors warning against going barefoot all the time?
It turns out that some of those benefits of walking barefoot are a 2-edged sword. While being barefoot can offer better control of the foot position, wearing shoes may reduce the control of the foot. This goes unnoticed because the shoe takes up the slack. But remove the shoe, and you have poor control of foot position.
“Without appropriate strength in the foot, you are at risk of having poor mechanics of walking, thereby increasing your risk for injury,” explains Kaplan. He emphasizes that this can be particularly important if you’ve worn shoes most of your life and suddenly start walking barefoot, as many have done during the stay-at-home provisions.
Injuries from going barefoot?
Have you ever been walking through your house and stubbed your toe on something you forgot was on the floor? According to New York sports podiatrist, Dr. Lori Weisenfeld-Katz, this is the most common way toes are broken at home.
Additionally, Dr. Weisenfeld-Katz says older adults, those with poor circulation, those with varicose veins or anyone whose feet tend to swell after standing for long periods of time should wear shoes, even inside. “People don’t realize when they’re wearing shoes, it offers some compression and stops some of the swelling,” she said.
Ever stepped on a hard piece of a child’s toy? Maybe you were enjoying a barefoot walk in your backyard and stepped on a stick? If either of these sound familiar, then you know first-hand one of the other potential injuries of going barefoot. While often a minor inconvenience, more serious injuries may occur if the object is glass or a sharp piece of metal that pierces the skin.
According to doctors with the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons (ACFAS), if you experience a puncture wound, you should seek medical attention within 24 hours. This is because in some cases, the foreign object can become embedded inside the foot leading to infections or damage to tendons and muscles of the foot. By getting the wound evaluated and properly cleaned, this can help avoid these complications.
Diabetics are at higher risk to suffer a foot injury and are, therefore, recommended to be very cautious when going barefoot, or even avoid it altogether. This is due to the neuropathy, common among diabetics, that leads to a lack of sensation in the bottom of the foot. Robert S. Marsh, DO explains, “People with neuropathy tend to put too much pressure on certain areas of their feet and can develop calluses and, eventually, ulcerations of the foot…Also, because they can’t feel the bottom of their feet, they can cut their foot without knowing.” This is why it’s important for diabetics to monitor their feet closely, especially if they have been going barefoot.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons plantar fasciitis is the most common cause of pain on the bottom of the heel. They estimate that around 2 million patients seek treatment for this condition annually.
Dr. Marsh notes that this is a condition that knows no population boundary. From adolescents to older adults, from athletes, to couch potatoes, anyone can be a candidate.
Plantar fasciitis is a result of tiny tears in the ligament that supports the arch of the foot. These tears may then become irritated and inflamed. While walking barefoot can improve a person’s gait and reduce the overall amount of force created with each step, more of that force will be absorbed by the foot than when wearing shoes. Therefore, for those already at higher risk of plantar fasciitis, (such as high arches, overly tight calf muscles, obesity, or a change in activity), going barefoot may increase their likelihood of developing plantar fasciitis.
Going barefoot safely
The potential risks associated with going barefoot can generally be mitigated with a little planning. And let’s face it, it just feels better to kick off our shoes and relax. So, the question becomes, how to do this safely. Here’s a few tips compiled from the various sources for this article:
- Use common sense! Every year people lose toes to lawnmowers or other yard and garden equipment because they were barefoot or in flimsy flipflop style sandals. When you are using equipment, or in the area where someone else is doing so, wear appropriate shoes. If you are planning to go wading in a creek, don’t go barefoot when you can’t see the bottom. Sharp objects from natural items like sticks and shells, to debris like glass and metal, can be concealed by the water.
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight puts more pressure on your feet. In fact, Dr. Marsh says, “I always tell people that every pound you carry over your ideal body weight is like 10 pounds on your feet. Every pound makes a difference.”
- Start slow. Don’t expect your body to suddenly make the leap from barefoot a couple hours to all day long. If your feet are used to shoes, you may need to continue to wear shoes part time while your body adjusts. You can also try minimalist shoes as a step down. Anytime you feel new pain or discomfort, take a step back. If it doesn’t stop quickly on its own, talk to your chiropractor about it at your next visit.
- Start on a safe, indoor surface. Check your walkways for anything that could cause injury (here’s a great motivation to help keep the floor picked up!) and be aware of differences in surfaces. Carpeted rooms will have more cushion than your tile floors.
- Practice on a safe, outdoor surface. When you are comfortable inside, start with surfaces that are less dangerous. Grass, turf, rubber tracks, sandy beach or freshly tilled garden can be good places to start out.
- Stretch! Talk to your doctor of chiropractic about stretches to help your foot and lower leg muscles and tendons regain or maintain flexibility and strength.
- Wear flip flops or sandals around swimming pools, locker rooms and other places that can be a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Listen to your body. If you have pain, reduce your activity, ice and see your chiropractor or other healthcare professional. They can check for injuries such as sprains, strains, and broken bones and provide treatment accordingly.
Once a little boy was at a store with his mother, trying on shoes. He had gone barefoot all summer and now with school looming, the time had come for him to get “real shoes”. Every pair the mother tried were deemed “too small” by the boy, even when she knew they were much too large. When she asked him what felt tight, the boy responded “I can’t wiggle my toes!” He was expecting the same flexibility in the shoe that he felt running through the grass.
While we may long for the carefree times of childhood summers, we hope these insights will help provide things to think about when considering going barefoot, including the potential risks and the potential benefits.
Lindberg, Sara “Does Walking Barefoot Have Health Benefits?” https://www.healthline.com/health/walking-barefoot#how-to-walk-barefootsafely
Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on June 15, 2018
“Going Barefoot All Day at Home Is Risky, According to Podiatrists” https://footwearnews.com/2020/focus/health/barefoot-home-risk-advantages-coronavirus-podiatrists-1202967224/
“Are Bare Feet Good for Plantar Fasciitis?
Everything You Need to Know About Going Barefoot” https://heelthatpain.com/heel-pain/barefoot/
“Foot Pain: Common Causes and Prevention Tips” https://www.oamichigan.com/foot-pain-common-causes-prevention-tips/
“Going Barefoot? Beware! Tips for a safer barefoot summer.” https://www.foothealthfacts.org/article/going-barefoot-beware! By the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons
“QUARANTINE’S EFFECT ON THE FEET” https://www.summitmedicalgroup.com/news/living-well/quarantines-effect-feet/
Last updated: Apr 27, 2020
Kadakia, Anish, R. MD “Plantar Fasciitis and Bone Spurs” https://www.orthoinfo.org/en/diseases–conditions/plantar-fasciitis-and-bone-spurs/
OrthoInfo.org by American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Last Reviewed June 2010