Picnics, pool parties, flip-flops and ice cream – for many of us, these are the hallmarks of living in Florida. But you can probably guess which one of them may not be so good for your back. Especially if you already suffer from chronic lumbar pain tied to spinal arthritis, spondylolisthesis, sciatica or a previous injury, wearing flip-flops (or “slides”) may not be the best strategy for avoiding discomfort. But you don’t have to ditch these comfy and convenient shoes altogether. Keep reading to learn why and when you should steer clear of this casual footwear while enjoying your summer – and find out what kind of shoes may be surprisingly good alternatives for some people.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of flip-flops when the weather turns warm. They’re quick to put on and take off, they let your feet stay cool and comfortable, and they easily withstand getting soaked now and then. But your standard flip-flop offers zero foot and ankle support, provides minimal cushioning, puts you at greater risk of trips and falls, and – most concerning for your lower back – causes you to walk differently than you would in a regular shoe.
Not only do you have to pinch or curl your toes to keep the shoes from flying off while walking, but you also actually shorten your stride for this purpose, which puts unusual strain on your feet, hips and lower back muscles. Your foot contacts the ground differently in flip-flops, too, with more pressure put on the outside edges and less on the heel. This causes a slight rotation of the lower portion of your leg, which in turn changes the angle of your pelvis and prompts increased torsion of the lower spine. Such changes to your body mechanics can cause stiffness and pain in the lumbar region, which may worsen over time. Knowing this, here are some things to keep in mind the next time you slip on that flimsy footwear.
Don’t “live” in your flip-flops.
These shoes do have legitimate uses – for example, they’re great for public locker rooms and showers, and even for that quick trudge to the backyard or to the beach. But with their lack of arch support and thin, floppy rubber soles, they’re NOT made for long walks, any form of quick movement, or continuous use while shopping, visiting a theme park, or going anywhere where you’ll be on your feet for very long.
Pay attention to the signals your body sends you.
The moment that you begin to experience back pain while wearing flip-flops, you should stop what you’re doing, apply ice to the area, and change into more supportive shoes. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to treat minor back muscle sprains, strains and spasms. The longer you keep going after pain is present, the more your body is compensating for the hurt area by putting strain on other muscles and joints, thereby increasing your potential for further injury. You’re also somewhat more likely to experience a dangerous fall due to the impact that your altered gait has on your stability.
Take it slow.
Running, jumping, and quick sideways movements are to be avoided while wearing flip flops due to the risk of falls and lack of support and shock absorption they offer. Remember that falls are one of the most common reasons that people visit a doctor for back pain, and practice proper walking technique whenever possible. It’s also not a bad idea to talk to a podiatrist about custom orthotics that may be fitted to your regular footwear for the purpose of limiting back pain.
Healthier alternative No. 1: Crocs.
Invented as a shoe for people who work on and around boats, Crocs may seem like an odd alternative to flip-flops, but in fact they have several features that bode well for your spine. Their no-slip soles reduce the likelihood of falls, and they tend to have good interior support, decent cushioning and a rigid sole as well as real heel cups. They’re also lightweight, and they stay on your feet without causing you to change your natural walking stride, which is a definite benefit to your back. Believe it or not, some medical professionals – including surgeons and nurses – make a practice of wearing Crocs when they know they’re going to be on their feet all day. The American Podiatric Medical Association and the U.S. Ergonomics Council have each certified this type of shoe as well.
Healthier alternative No. 2: Sport sandals and hybrid “sneaker-sandals.”
The wide variety of “sport sandals” and hybrids on the market may also offer good alternatives to the typical flip-flop. These sandals mimic sneakers in the way that they securely hug your feet with comfortable straps and toe guards, a contoured foot bed, actual arch supports, and heel cups – all of which can provide greater stability and proper alignment of your feet, knees, hips and lower back. To help you narrow the field, do your research, try on as many kinds as you can before buying, make sure you get the right fit, and pay attention to how stable you are when you’re standing and walking in each pair. Are you able to maintain your normal stride? Does the sole of your foot stay connected to the sole of the shoe at all times?
While only time will tell if you’ve chosen the right shoe to reduce your back pain, following the above recommendations can help you sort through your options and wind up with the right summer footwear that’s in sync with your active agenda as well as your aching back.
If you are consistently bothered with back pain, learn more about the Spine Health Institute to arrange for a medical evaluation and consultation.