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Foot Arthritis: Barefoot a Help or Hindrance?

by Christine Skelly » on Jul 25, 2011 12

Barefoot has turned the research of foot health on its head in recent years. “How could less cushion protect my feet”? “Why do my shoes make my feet hurt?” It has never made sense why more cushion has caused more pain than good, but wherever media turns its head, so does the consumer, and thus eventually the producer of the goods realizing they are missing out on a bubble of consumerism.

This has been evident in the events occurring the past two years that FiveFingers have risen to at least the peripheral vision of the common public. Meanwhile, running and outdoors enthusiasts have been immersed in a new phenomenon under the radar of shoe technology, and gladly so.

In the past two years reports have come out about the cushioned wedges called cross trainers (and any other type of “trainer” or “tennis” shoes) actually exacerbate and cause hip, knee, and back pain and woes, as well as the idea that maybe this soft cushy stuff could be a bad idea. Our human foot and much of our human livelihoods in many aspects, have been softened to the point where mental muscle or physical muscle is too much of a burden to even begin to try. Returning to a more connected way of life has begun to come back and is coming back vividly, I am glad to say.

But I have strayed far from my point.

The point is, while FiverFingers are at the front of the barefoot movement and others follow in their wake with whatever their designs happen to do to promote or distort the barefoot ideal, we have only begun to learn about and understand the structure of our feet.

I recently heard from a co-worker whom I was explaining FiveFingers to that our boss actually had arthritis of her feet due to running around and being barefoot so much in her youth. This fact not only floored me as it contradicts everything the barefoot movement teaches about how your feet will make us into superior striking bipeds with muscled feet, but it also unsettled me. While man has gone barefoot and has been designed to, this is a new phenomenon that does not have many years backing it in the current wave of shoe statistics. “Barefoot shoes” and “Minimalist shoes” are completely new terms that are now gaining clout.

There are barefoot runners on blogs that have been running unshod for decades and they are stronger than many 30 year olds for it. But my own family history of Rheumatoid Arthritis is a bit disconcerting, making me wonder if barefoot running would ever exacerbate future problems or better yet, prevent them.

Doing light reading on Foot Arthritis (since that’s what I do in my spare time) the main types that surface are Osteoarthritis (wearing away of cartilage in joints in the foot causing swelling and pain during movement), Gout (excessive uric acid crystals form around the joint of the big toe), and Rheumatoid Arthritis (which has no known cause but can cause bunions, hammer toes, claw toes and can affect the whole body).

My grandmother has severe RA and the results aren’t pretty. This and many other illnesses have spurred me to curb many lifelong bad habits as early as I can, though I am still working on it all at, being only 21. Prevention is the best medicine, though when that isn’t possible, countermeasures must be found.

The listed remedies for foot arthritis on this given source (Foot.com) were: a very open toe compartment for toe mobility, orthodic inserts, and gel inserts to cushion movement at the painful stage of the game. Which comes full circle back to being in closed shoes and cushy soles being the potential problem. Arthritis.com says bone spurs that form around joints can be caused by wearing high heels too much or “running too much”?? And they continue on to say that the pain will change the way you walk.

It is a strange cycle of logic, and I would like other readers to give input if you have it.

This is meant to hopefully flush out some answers for what the future of barefoot running provides, whether it is stronger Alpha Feet, or arthritic claws in my FiveFingers, but either way, it is a serious topic that I would like to hear from the FiveFinger community.

Has anything like this surfaced in the barefoot runners here? Any family members who are running and doing well or not-so well? Leave some insight if possible.


12 Comments

  1. Melanie

    July 25th, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    With our bodies, the adage is, “use it or lose it.” If you don’t use your joints’ mobility, you will lose it. We have known for a while that crushing toes causes the joints to lose mobility and that the reverse is also true. My sister has RA in her toes directly caused by high heels. We all know that arthritis is helped by continued mobility and gentle exercise, so I can’t see how toe shoes could possibly make it worse. I would like to see your boss’s evidence – I bet she has none.

    That said, running might well contribute to arthritis in arthritis-prone individuals. We are not all the same and not all bodies can handle a lot of running.

    Reply

  2. Jim

    July 25th, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Wow, I can understand your concerns. I am NOT an expert in other people’s feet, but I know my own. Here’s what I can tell you: I’ve been running competitively since i was about 15. And that was in 1964. In that roughly 47 years of running, I have no trace of arthritis in my feet, but do have some in my hands. I have worn out scores of shoes but am now thrilled to be using Vibrams for the past two and a half years. See my comments on my blog (http://meditationontherun.blogspot.com/). My feet … as well as my whole body … feels stronger and healthier than any time I can remember. So I swear by them!

    Reply

  3. Robinson

    July 26th, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I have gone under the same idea as Melanie – of “use it or lose it” – and switched over to VFFs due to that. My mother has gout and arthritis, and I am hoping that switching is going to help hold off some of the issues she has had.

    Reply

  4. Jon

    July 27th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I have had 4 surgeries on my feet since 2001. While in the US ARMY I broke my right foot and spent 11 months with two operations in a cast. My podiatrist swears that these “fad shoes” will not help me, and will probably make my feet worse. That being said, I have worn my KSO and classics as often as I can. (work won’t allow me… yet.)
    In two weeks my knee pain was almost completely gone. After six weeks my toes hurt less than they had in years. Now I still wear boots to work, and loafers when I have to dress up, but VFFs are my first choice the rest of the time.
    I personally believe that without them I would have still been inactive outside of the water. My dogs appreciate the fact that I can take them for walks, and to the park. I am able to do light jogging on uneven terrain. I do not expect to ever run a marathon, but I would like to think that do to VFFs and perseverance that I will still be walking in twenty years, and not in the wheelchair that the podiatrist wanted to fit me for.

    Reply

  5. Cathy

    November 11th, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    I have had severe rheumatoid arthritis for eight years. While at one time a very supportive shoe like Dansko clogs seemed to work best for my foot, the pain has moved from the balls of my feet to my toes. I can no longer wear very supportive shoes as they don’t let my toes move. The consequence is toes that haven’t moved all day and become very stiff. I have never understood the thought behind wearing supportive shoes with RA because with any other joints we are encouraged to move them as often as possible, yet with our feet we keep them closed in all day. For me, this makes the situation worse.

    I have been wearing my VFF for the last year. I love them! Sometimes they are the only shoe that I can wear besides worn out sandals that let me move my toes throughout the day. I only wish there was an option that I could wear to my job where I stand for long periods of time.
    *RA is an autoimmune disease, which I personally don’t believe going barefoot all your life would be the cause of you have RA in your feet.

    Reply

  6. Franz Wagner

    November 28th, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I’m a nurse who works with 2 very different podiatrists. Their ideologies and methods are at opposite ends of the rainbow. So, I can see the dilemna most folks have with listening to their medical providers. However, I do support their intent: to educate patients about their maladies, alleviate their discomfort and eliminate the CAUSITVE FACTOR. For many die hard runners, advice to stop running is unwelcome and genererally unheeded. Both of my doctors do agree that footgear should be task oriented.
    If you work in a factory there are OSHA requirements to be adhered to for your protection. If you say that you routinely wear “tennis” shoes we’d ask you: Clay court; Grass court;or Hard court? There is a different shoe for each. Runners…. Oh my God! What a tangled mess of choices. Again, even the sub categories have a specific type shoe. Track; Cross Country; and the Master Meat Grinder the Metropolitan Marathon. You can’t use the “overkill principle.” Say a shoe is rated for off road running and you think “well that should be tough enough for road running.” NO! Specialized footwear that is task oriented.
    I can site many reasons not to go barefoot, mostly dealing with hygiene and safety.
    We’ve left the desert sands and rainforests behind us. Footwear was designed to be: TASK ORIENTED (theres that term again) and PROTECTIVE. Our bodies were not designed to walk on concrete and asphalt.
    Basic Physics: to propel ourselves forward we exert 3G’s. The formula is 3x mass = the work exerted. If you weigh 150lbs, the balls of your feet are exerting 450lbs of effort. That’s every normal gaited step. Running is 5x. EVERY STEP! That’s a lot of stress. There in lies the whole problem. It’s not a matter of some “cookie cutter philosophy” applying to everyone. Each of us is unique. Each of us react differently to physical and mental stress. Medicine is just beginning to catch site of examining a person’s DNA profile to determine effective treatments based on known disease markers. One day, I believe that, a DNA profile will effectively map a person’s health; vocation; and identify stressors that should be avoided. There are commonalities but again, each and every one of us has diferent tolerances. So, trial and error is the norm for now. Do what works for you, but be reasonable. If you’re not listening to the experts and you keep tearing yourself up you need to examine how that’s working for you.

    Reply

  7. Swanson

    February 23rd, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    If you run barefoot the nerve endings in your feet tell your body to coil and reduce the pressure and stress of impact. Most running and stability shoes cushion impact reducing the transfer of the impact to the body causing us to increase force and impact on the knees and hips.

    Reply

  8. Barry

    June 04th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Since posted this almost a year ago, I hope that you have found a solution to that vicious cycle.

    Now – there are always new players joining the game and now it is my turn…….I had to recentlty drop out of a marathon. It felt like a severe strain on the side of my foot up to my ankle. After seeing the doctor, all they could say is that the x-rays show arthritis in the jonts. No solution was offered. I asked if I could be referred to a podiatrist and they agreed – and I found one who listed running as a hobby, so maybe I’ll get a little sympathy, if nothing else. But I have run – nothing else can substitute.

    Yes – dropping out of a race still hurts – the first time in my life!

    Reply

  9. sheri

    October 18th, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    I have rheumatoid arthritis and my vibrams are the only shoes that I can wear when I have to walk extended periods. At first I chose super squishy sandals – but they don’t help once they get compressed. I don’t have five fingers – mine have the closed toe box, but it’s about the same thing. They provide relief. I too don’t believe in the whole idea of wearing super supportive shoes that essentially immobilize the feet. I’m looking into getting a second pair of barefoot shoes.

    Reply

  10. Mike

    November 29th, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    My opinion is that cushion shoes are made to protect your feet from outside elements that weather, dirt, rocks etc..will have a part in…
    In fact, i dont think there is any shoes out there that will improve your feets actual internal health but actual just protects it from the outside element but at the same time will weaken it over time due to being shelter from the elements.
    I think there isnt a right and wrong answer here and even tho im a big fan of barefoot shoe…i also am aware that it wont solve all of my bipedo issue… Barefoot shoes will strentghen your muscle around your feet…and make tougher feet. But is it the answer to RA? I dont know… Will it make your feet sstronger… Yes.. Will it serve as a preventive measure to RA.. Well, we know that that cushion shoes wont. But, on the philosophical notion that if your right hand is broken…your left will become stronger…so if your joints are weaken…maybe the answer is to strengthen your feet instead of sheltering it…or to balance it out somehow…

    Reply

  11. Jim

    November 29th, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Scroll up and you can see that I posted here before. Ironically, though, when I saw Mike’s post above, I was just completing a post on my own blog (http://www.meditationontherun.blogspot.com/) noting how much I loved the benefits I was seeing in my feet.
    I don’t know if this will help those of you who are struggling with RA, but thought I’d share my own continuing experience.

    Reply

  12. Steve

    August 05th, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I’m not a runner but have been known to go barefoot at the first opportunity available. I have my own Buisness and have no qualms about going through the workday barefoot. My personal workday can be as long as 18 to 20 hours and soaking my feet after a long work session is not uncommon. Others my find it strange and yes it’s a bit unsafe, but for me it’s always been a matter of comfort. Running shoes would make my legs sore, proper shoes would make my feet hurt. A year ago I had my first gout attack. It happened during a 3 day move which was up and down a steep hill or 200 winding steps depending on how I chose to challenge it. During the move I was wearing shoes, did my previous shoeless contribute? I do not know. Major changes to diet and such and I’d been about a year without an attack and have kept up my shoeless nature at work. As accidents will happen I stepped on a flat AC cable pointed upwards during a gear move around work that made a single puncture on the inside of my left foot. Any gout sufferer will know that trauma is a big set off for a gout attack. This time being mainly in the ankle but also the big toe as usual.

    My take is that barefoot is the way to go, unless it’s a hazardous environment.

    Reply

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