My Podiatrist Told Me a Secret: These Surprising Shoes Cause Foot Pain

Last autumn, there was a period of about a month or two when merely walking from my apartment to my office (about a mile in New York) was causing chronic, searing pain in my right foot. Really, walking anywhere was painful—to the grocery store, to the park, to the subway. In other words, it was a huge pain in a literal and metaphorical sense. Finally, I decided to seek help by way of a podiatrist, Joseph Alencherry, DPM, and what I learned from that visit has not only enlightened the way I view footwear but also subsequently caused these shooting pains to dissipate. Yes, there's a happy ending here.

By the time I got to Alencherry’s office, I already knew we’d be talking about the elephant in the room: bunions. I did ballet for over 15 years, so I have small(ish) bunions. If you don’t know what these are, you’re one of the lucky ones. As explained on Alencherry’s website, bunions are “an enlargement on the big toe … and misalignment of the joint at that location.” What happens, the site goes on to explain, is that the deformity reshapes the big toe inward, causing inflammation and—bluntly—pain.

Inflammation and pain… sounds about right. They're not caused strictly by ballet, of course. The major causes of bunions are genetics, rheumatoid arthritis, and improperly fitting shoes.

That last one is typically what people like myself associate with bunions. Wear high heels too often? Bunions. Wear pointe shoes for an excess of years? Bunions. Well, it turns out there’s a surprising twist to this story…

When I arrived at my appointment, he did, in fact, call me out on said bunions, but his follow-up shocked me a bit. In fact, I may or may not have expected a high-five when he asked me what shoes I wore and I quickly and confidently proclaimed that I don’t really wear heels anymore. Instead, he stopped me and explained that heels aren’t the only shoe culprits behind foot pain, pointed to my sneakers (a pair of Supergas), and said that even low-to-the-ground shoes—sneakers or flats—can create legitimate foot pain if they push your toes together. Say what?

Sure, I knew that wearing heels causes your toes to slide forward and squish together. But the notion that even a pair of sneakers could be unsafe was mindblowing to me. After some X-rays, my rejecting a cortisone shot because I hate needles, and a painful walk back to the office, I got to thinking about my shoe closet.

What I found was an assortment of shoes meant for people with narrow feet. Sneakers, loafers, ankle boots, a few high heels I refuse to part ways with—all, for the most part, narrow. Now knowing that I had to make a change and that surgery wasn’t going to be it, I started investing in and wearing footwear that offers different widths, and it reversed my pain.

Moral of the story: Shoes are fun and not to be avoided, but wear any one style in moderation, and make sure you have a handful of pairs that let your toes spread out and chill out.

Any of the above sound familiar? Scroll down for some pain-free footwear picks from one of my favorite brands that let you customize your shoes to your foot measurements.