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An Easy Hack For Fixing Foot Pain
So many people suffer from foot pain! I used to be one of them – I’ve had plantar fasciitis many times, numbness in my toes, and for three years, I also had this weird problem that felt like a constant ache in my midfoot. All gone now, I’m happy to report! But I totally get it – foot pain sucks. And that’s why fixing foot pain is one of my passions as a movement coach.
Today, I’m going to share one of my favourite ways to help fix foot pain – without taking any extra time out of your day!
Why is foot pain so common? For lots of reasons, but the biggest problem is our shoe choices. Our shoes aren’t foot shaped. They squish our toes. They stop our foot muscles from working. And shoes with any kind of raised heel contribute to a whole bunch of other issues too, such as low back pain and pelvic floor disorder.
Because our shoes are the cause of so many foot issues, I’m a huge fan of going barefoot and using minimal shoes. But since our feet have adapted to years of shoe wearing, it’s not usually a good idea to switch to minimal shoes overnight. If you go too fast, you can actually trigger more foot pain instead of less.
Instead, it’s better to take the time to slowly and carefully adapt to wearing less shoe. Spending more time barefoot, exercising your feet and lower legs, and learning about your whole-body alignment will all help you safely transition to minimal shoes.
But one hack that I love and that takes no extra time out of your day is using toe spreaders.
What are toe spreaders?
Exactly what they sound like! They’re a tool that you wear between your toes to help create space. This helps you return to the natural shape your feet should have had all along.
Why would you want to have a natural foot shape?
You were born to have feet that are widest at the ends of your toes, not at the ball of the foot.
But, your toes (and everyone else’s, too) have been squashed together for years and years by tight shoes. Even if you didn’t think they were tight when you were wearing them, almost all shoes sold these days aren’t actually shaped correctly for the human foot.
Isn’t that a crazy fact? How is it that humans, making shoes for other humans, have collectively decided to make shoes that AREN’T HUMAN SHAPED??!?!
The result of non-foot shaped shoes is years of getting squashed. This means our foot bones end up living too close together. This can decrease your circulation and irritate tissues in the feet, contributing to plantar fasciitis, neuromas and other foot problems.
To heal these issues, or to avoid them in the first place, it’s important to get your feet back to their natural shape.
And that’s where toe spreaders come in!
Benefits Of Toe Spreaders
Toe spreaders aren’t the whole story when it comes to foot health, but they can be a really helpful tool. Here’s what they can help you do:
1. Re-align your foot bones. By gentle spreading your toes apart, toe spreaders will actually re-align your toe bones when worn over a long period of time. Exactly like narrow shoes squash your bones semi-permanently, toe spreaders un-squash your bones.
2. Increase circulation in your feet. Giving your toes more room also gives your blood more room to move! Getting fresh oxygen into all your cells regularly helps keep you healthy right down to your DNA. Want to see what I mean? Here’s a great image showing the difference in circulation when wearing toe spreaders.
3. Strengthen and mobilize your foot muscles. As well as being squashed, our feet are usually very stiff and very weak. Wearing spreaders while you walk around and move will help strengthen and mobilize all those neglected foot muscles, naturally.
4. Improve your balance. Now that your feet are stronger and more mobile, your ability to balance can also improve.
5. Feel less foot pain. Many people find that just wearing toe spreaders can decrease foot pain. And personally I enjoy the way they feel all on their own!
How To Use Toe Spreaders
The most important rule when you start using toe spreaders is to go small and slow. After years and years and years in shoes, starting to spread your toes can feel very intense!
My boyfriend Chris just got his first pair of toe spreaders (yay!). The first day he wore them for 5 minutes and felt good. So the next day he jumped to 20 minutes and his feet were killing him for two whole days afterwards. What seems like a small increase to our brains can be really big for our bodies.
The general rule of thumb for fitness adaptation is to increase your workouts not more than 10% a week. That would be a good starting point for figuring out how much time you should spend in your new toe spreaders. Your first day, wear them for a few minutes and see how you feel the next day. Adjust up or down a bit depending on what you notice, but not more than about 10% (definitely not 300%), and the see how you feel the next day again. If it triggers soreness, take some time off until your feet feel good, then reintroduce them more slowly.
Over time, you will adapt and be able to wear your spreaders for long periods – I can wear mine all day and night now, literally.
You may also want try starting with this gentle foot exercise, it’s one of my favourites. It’s called ‘Shaking hands with your feet’.
What Toe Spreaders Should You Buy?
I wish I could just tell you that there’s one perfect type of toe spreader. But the truth is that different types all have different pros and cons. One of the reasons I love my job is that it gives me an excuse to own all sorts of movement tools! I regularly use three different types of toe spreaders, depending on what I’m up to. Here are my favourites and the ways I like to use them.
When to use them: Wear them all night long – 8 full hours of foot health!
Best for people who: Have to wear shoes a lot during the day and don’t own minimal shoes.
My Happy Feet Alignment Socks were my very first toe spreaders, and I still use them almost every day. Every night, actually – I like to put them on when I go to bed and let them work their magic all night long.
These guys are not designed to be worn when you’re up and about – instead, they’re best for when you’re resting and your feet aren’t bearing your weight. You can start by wearing them when you’re reading, watching TV or otherwise chilling out, and gradually increase the time until you’re ready to try them all night. That’s a big jump, and you might end up waking up in the night to take them off. That’s what happened to me, anyway, but these days I can wear them all night 95% of the time.
Interestingly, one of my feet adapted much faster than the other to my all-night sock wearing. And the one that still cramps up the most is also the one where I have the most problems. Bodies are so fascinating!
I love My Happy Feet socks because they let me work on my foot health while I sleep! Because they’re socks, they don’t fall out from between my toes. They also breathe well so I can wear them year-round. And they’re both affordably priced and durable – mine are over 3 years old now and still going strong. It probably helps that I don’t walk in them, but it’s still great that they’re lasting so well. They are a great starter toe spreader and one that I still love to use. Also good for plane flights!
When to use them: Hanging out at home, yoga class, taking pix for Instagram
Best for people who: Spend lots of time barefoot
I first saw Joy-A Toes spreaders at a yoga class. I thought they looked weird and ignored them.
A few years later I started learning more about movement and realised that I actually totally needed a pair. By then I already had my Happy Feet Socks, and so I bought the large size ‘cause I figured my feet were doing pretty well. The next day I went back and bought the small size, and since then I haven’t looked back. Now I actually can wear the large size in comfort, so fortunately my investment wasn’t wasted.
I love how these things feel – kind of like gummy bears for your toes. And they look really interesting too, thanks to their strange but appealing blue colour. This makes them good for Instagram pictures! After a few minutes of wearing them you can really feel the circulation in your toes. This is one of my favourite sensations and I crave it if I don’t get enough of it.
Joy-a-Toes are good for wearing when you’re standing, walking, or doing other gentle movements while barefoot. I find them too large to wear in any of my shoes, so this means I mostly wear them around the house when I’m doing chores, cooking, practicing movement or working at the computer. Like right now!
When to use them: When you’re wearing your minimal shoes, possibly when barefoot
Best for people who: Are serious about foot health, and walk in minimal shoes
Correct Toes are the gold standard in toe spreaders. They were created by Dr. Ray McClanahan, an outstanding sports podiatrist whose practice is committed to conservative foot care. In other words, he helps people exercise their way back to healthy feet instead of relying on surgery and orthotics.
This all means that Correct Toes more anatomically appropriate than other types of toe spreaders since they’re designed to get your feet to exactly where they belong. They are also adjustable so they fit your unique feet perfectly. Once you’ve adapted to them, you can (and should!) wear them during any activity and all day. I find mine very comfortable!
I love my Correct Toes, but they have some downsides. They’re quite expensive, for a start (although they do offer a 30 day money back guarantee).
They also don’t fit in many shoes – even many brands of minimal shoes. You need to have a wide toe box, which many minimal shoes actually don’t have. I have wide feet, too, so I’m pretty limited – I can wear mine in my Altras, my Soft Stars and my Lems boots (but not my Lems shoes). Correct Toes has a very helpful approved shoe list if you’d like to see their recommended options.
And although some people can wear them while barefoot, I find they fall out from my short toes. So I’d say that these are best for people who are serious about their foot health and who are willing to commit to minimal shoes.
Who Should Not Use Toe Spreaders
If you have diabetes, impaired foot circulation or sensation, or extremely painful feet, I wouldn’t recommend toe spreaders. If you’re not sure, please check with a healthcare provider who’s knowledgeable about movement and musculoskeletal health!
What’s Next After Toe Spreaders?
Although toe spreaders are an excellent ‘hack’ to help your feet feel better, they aren’t the end of the story.
Toe spreaders are a good tool, but they work passively. That means they put your body into a new shape, which creates some adaptation, but your body doesn’t have to work to be there. That means you don’t get as much healthy change as you would if you were strengthening your feet with active movement. This, by the way, is one reason that CorrectToes are the most effective toe spreaders. You wear them while you’re active, which means they help you build more muscle than if you’re just wearing spreaders while sleeping.
For really robust and amazing foot health, I recommend that you work actively on your foot strength and mobility and gradually transition to more minimal shoes. It can take a while, but there are many rewards to improving the function of your feet! If you’d like some guidance on your foot health journey, I’ve actually created a free email mini-course for you! When you sign up, you’ll get 5 weeks of foot exercises that will get you well on your way to vibrantly happy feet.
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body – and she’s always happy to chat about it. When she’s not teaching, you’ll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.