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Shoe shopping: It's all about fit

Shoes that don't fit well cause many foot injuries. Knowing how to shop for shoes can reduce the risk of problems.

Fit or fashion? Which is more likely to guide your choices when you're purchasing shoes?

Statistics from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) suggest it's the latter. The AAOS reports that millions of Americans experience foot problems—usually related to poorly fitting shoes.

Women, in particular, seem to be at risk. Women are more likely than men to wear shoes too small for their feet, putting them at a higher risk for foot problems, according to the AAOS.

Foot problems caused by poorly fitting shoes are many and varied. They include bunions, corns, calluses, hammertoes and other disorders. For some, these problems may be relatively minor. But for others, they'll require surgery.

For a fine fit

To reduce your risk for foot problems, it's important to choose shoes that fit well. Different shoes are best suited for different activities. But these general tips from the AAOS, the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society (AOFAS), and the American Podiatric Medical Association can guide you as you purchase new footwear.

Have your feet measured. Your feet may continue to grow as you age, so it's good to get both feet measured before you make a shoe purchase. If one foot is larger or wider than the other, fit shoes to the larger foot.

Since feet often swell, have them measured at the end of the day, when they're likely to be their largest. Be sure to stand while your feet are measured because they expand when bearing weight.

Know what to look for. A good-fitting shoe should conform as closely as possible to the shape of your foot. In particular, be sure the widest part of your foot matches up to the widest part of the shoe.

The heel should not slip out of the back of the shoe, and you should be able to freely wiggle all of your toes. You want the toe box—the area that houses your toes—to be spacious, but not so spacious that your feet slide around and you end up with blisters. Walking around in the shoes at the store will help you evaluate the fit.

Be guided by comfort. Shoes should feel comfortable at the time of purchase; don't expect a break-in period. And don't be influenced by sizing alone. Just because your foot measures at a size 9 doesn't mean you shouldn't wear a size 10 if it feels more comfortable. Sizes in one brand or style may differ from those in another brand or style.

What's it made of?

The AOFAS notes that the material from which shoes are made can affect fit and comfort.

Soft materials decrease the amount of pressure shoes place on the feet. The softer the sole, the greater the shoe's ability to absorb shock.

Stiff materials, on the other hand, can cause blisters. Keep this in mind as you shop.

Specifically for women

Because women often wear unique shoes, experts offer them some unique advice—especially pertaining to high heels.

Many high-heeled shoes have a pointed, narrow toe box that crowds the toes, forcing them into an unnatural shape. These shoes also place excess stress on the balls of the feet and the forefeet. As heel height increases, so does the stress.

To protect your feet, the AOFAS recommends wearing shorter heels whenever possible and saving higher-heeled shoes for the times when you won't be on your feet for extended periods.

Wearing a size larger than usual and inserting heel cups into the backs for a better fit may be an option. Taking designer shoes to be custom-fitted by a pedorthist—an expert who fits shoes individually to prevent foot injuries—may be a possibility as well.

Remember, your feet are meant to last a lifetime, but they need good care—and good shoes—to do their job well.

reviewed 9/27/2019

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