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Flip-flop flap: Wearing the popular sandals can be a sore issue

| Monday, June 6, 2011

In the warm months, Melissa Hauck of McKees Rocks enjoys wearing her eight pairs of flip-flops, which come in colors and styles that match different outfits.

"I live in them," Hauck, 35, says about her flip-flop pairs, about three of which are the cheap plastic ones sold at drugstores.

However, Hauck knows better than to walk long distances in her flip-flops; she puts on athletic shoes for that.

"You definitely need more cushioning," Hauck says.

In the spring and summer, flip-flops -- the open-foot, thong sandals that often sell for just a few dollars at drugstores and gas stations -- are making that thwack-thwack noise everywhere, as their wearers walk. Yet, flip-flop fans should be careful not to overdo it, podiatrists say: wearing the simple shoes for too many steps can lead to foot problems, including pain in the arches, stress fractures, stubbed toes and blisters.

"Flip-flops were made to be worn to and from the swimming pool and the beach," says Dr. Lynne Haubelt. She is a Pittsburgh podiatrist who treats many flip-flop injuries this time of year.

Nothing is inherently wrong with flip-flops, Haubelt says; it's wearing them inappropriately that causes problems, like running in stilettos. Walking very short distances in flip-flops should be fine, but wearing them for a day at Kennywood could quickly become painful.

"They're stylish, but they're meant for poolside," Haubelt says. She works at Associates in Podiatry, with offices in Downtown and Brentwood. "You can't do a lot of walking in flip-flops; one or two blocks, and that's it.

"Wear the appropriate shoe for the appropriate time," she says.

People who wear flip-flops can easily stub their uncovered toes, and their exposed feet can get a sunburn, Haubelt says. Flip-flop wearers often get heel pain, because of the lack of sole support. Many of the rubber flip-flops have less than an inch of padding. Some, like fancier leather flip-flops, are just like hard boards, with barely any sole padding and little flexibility.

"You might as well be in bare feet," she says. "You can feel it from ankles to knees to back, because there's no support."

Some flip-flops are better than other, Haubelt says. Companies including Reebok, Nike, and Adidas make the shoes with more padding on the rubber soles, and are more like a sandal than a classic flip-flop.

Few studies have been done about the effects of wearing flip-flops. However, a 2008 study found that participants took shorter steps while wearing the shoes. The researcher -- Justin Shroyer, a biomechanics doctoral student at Auburn University in Alabama -- studied 39 college-age men and women, guessed that people took shorter steps because they were trying to prevent the shoe from flying off. Shroyer also noted in his study that walkers gripped the sandals with their toes, wrapped around the shoes' thongs. Some participants reported sore feet, ankles and legs.

Dr. Richard Maleski -- a podiatrist with Valley Ankle and Foot Care, with offices in Arnold and Mars -- says some people have a harder time with flip-flops than others because their bone structure and weight requires more foot support in shoes. Maleski sees many cases of plantar fasciitis -- inflammation of ligament on the sole of the foot -- from people who strained their feet by walking in flip-flops too much. He also sees ankle sprains that resulted from an overly floppy shoe that slid off of a patient's foot.

Patients ask Maleski about flip-flops all the time.

"I tell my patients that shoes perform two functions: They protect your feet and support your feet," he says.

"Not everyone needs a lot of support, and some (people) shouldn't wear flip-flops because they offer no support whatsoever," he says. "Some can walk around barefoot all day and not have pain.

"If you can walk around in your bare feet and nothing bothers you, then chances are, you can walk around in flip-flops for a long time and nothing will bother you."

Katie Nomides, 23, of Mt. Lebanon, seems to be one of those types. She wears her flip-flops year-round -- even in the snow. She says she experiences no pain from her collection of black, brown and white Rainbow brand flip-flops. She would, however, put on athletic shoes for running.

"But if I were just going hiking, I'd probably wear flip-flops," Nomides says.


Here's some advice for flip-flop wearers from the American Podiatric Medical Association:


• Shop for a flip-flop made of high-quality, soft leather. Leather minimizes the potential for blisters and other types of irritation.

• Gently bend the flip-flop from end to end, ensuring that it bends at the ball of the foot.

• Wear sturdy flip-flops when walking around a public pool, at the beach, in hotel rooms and in locker rooms. Walking barefoot can expose foot soles to plantar warts and athlete's foot.

• Ensure that your foot doesn't hang off of the edge of the flip-flop.


• Wear the same flip-flops year after year. Discard worn shoes.

• Ignore irritation between toes, where the toe thong fits. This can lead to blisters and infections.

• Wear flip-flops while walking long distances. There is little shock absorption and arch support.

• Do yard work while wearing flip-flops. Always wear a shoe that fully protects feet when doing outside activities such as mowing the lawn or using a weed cutter.

• Play sports in flip-flops. This practice can lead to twisting of the foot or ankle, as well as sprains and breaks.

-- The Washington Post

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