For most women, wearing high heels is a must. But although they look good, there is no denying the pain they can cause. Now, researchers have created a 3D scanner that shows exactly why high heels cause so much pain, and what damage they can cause to feet and ankles.

A research team at the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital (RNOH) is using the new 3D scanner – developed by CurveBeam – which they say is set to transform how foot and ankle problems are diagnosed.

Using similar radiation levels to conventional scanners, the device works by scanning both feet of a patient in under 60 seconds while they are standing in a “weight-bearing position” in or out of shoes.

Dishan Singh, consultant orthopedic surgeon at RNOH, explains:

“Traditionally, we have used 2D X-rays to diagnose foot problems but this only gives us limited information.”

The new scanner allows us to clearly see how the foot and ankle looks and functions in a weight-bearing position, and this will help us treat patients earlier to prevent long-term problems.”

The researchers say that women who regularly wear high heels suffer from foot and ankle problems because body weight is transferred to the ball of the foot, which adds pressure to sesamoids. These are the small “pea-sized” bones under the big toe.

They add that wearing high heels regularly can also squash the toes, which forces the foot into an unnatural shape. This can cause severe pain and long-term damage, such as “clawing of the toes” – when the toes contract at the middle and end joints.

Specialists at University College London in the UK found that 57% of their female patients experienced severe foot pain due to wearing uncomfortable shoes on a regular basis, according to the researchers.

A 2009 study from researchers at the Institute of Aging Research of Hebrew SeniorLife found that 64% of women who reported hind-foot pain were regular wearers of high heels.

“More than one in five GP visits relate to musculoskeletal problems and many of these are for problems relating to the foot and ankle,” says Andy Goldberg, consultant orthopedic surgeon at RNOH.

“There is an established link between high heels and foot pain, but for the first time we are able to see the effect of such shoes on feet in real time. In moderation high heels are fine. It is when worn day in day out that problems could develop.”

The researchers say that in the first month of use at the hospital, the scanner has been used on more than 80 patients and has accurately pinpointed a variety of foot and ankle conditions, including bunions, dislocations, fractures and arthritis.

The Healthy Footwear Guide aims to help people recognize the key features of footwear that are most likely to offer a “healthy and comfortable fit.”

They recommend choosing shoes that:

  • Have styles with a lace, touch and close fastening or buckle – they provide the most adjustment
  • Do not slip up and down at the back
  • Have a minimum of 6 mm in front of the longest toe
  • Have a tread pattern that extends over the whole sole and heel area to provide better grip.