What does 'arch support' in shoes even do?
January 27, 2011 3:24 PM   Subscribe

What does 'arch support' in shoes do and why do I need it?

I keep seeing all this fuss about whether shoes have arch support or not, but I can't imagine why I'd want my shoes pressing into the underside of my foot. That just sounds uncomfortable.

I'm not a big fan of shoes in the first place (I do my treadmill work in Vibrams and otherwise kick off my shoes as much as I can.) I've already given up wearing high heels because, man, those things are uncomfortable and I'm tall enough anyway. I'm pushing 40, which is apparently old enough that I'm supposed to need extra-structured insoles or something. As far as I can tell, I have a normal arch (the only person who ever told me I had a high arch was trying to sell me ballet pointe shoes as a teen and I think it was just a sales pitch.)

What does "arch support" even do, and why would someone need it as a matter of course? Should I just assume that if I'm wearing non-constrictive flats that my arches are self-supporting?
posted by Karmakaze to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you having pain anywhere in your lower body?
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:41 PM on January 27, 2011

I have a super-high arches (they have stopped conversations before) and I have arch supports as insoles to, in-part, keep my arch from flexing too much. Additionally, they give my foot way more contact area. Without them, my foot hits the floor at only three points, which can be rather painful over time.

It is, most of the time, more comfortable for me to wear my shoes with the arch supports inside, than to go barefoot for these two reasons.
posted by chiefthe at 3:42 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I don't wear shoes with good arch supports and I walk for any length of time, my knees hurt. A lot. Generally for days. I'd imagine if you don't have any pain as a result of not wearing good arch-supporty shoes, you don't need good arch support.
posted by brainmouse at 3:43 PM on January 27, 2011

I have flat feet - no arches at all. If I stand or walk for more than a few minutes, my feet ache badly. Arch support helps form my foot into a better shape for extended standing or walking.
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:44 PM on January 27, 2011

For those that have high arched feet, "arch support" gives you stability. Otherwise I feel like I'm struggling to balance between putting my weight on my heels OR my toes, and put stress on either with no support in the middle. High arched feet are shaped kind of like rainbows. A little archy on the outsides, but looks like someone took with an ice cream scooper on the middle insides. Good support in the middle lets me distribute the weight on my feet so I not only feel more comfortable, but feel balanced.

Lack of arch support is the main reason I cannot wear flats - they make my feet hurt if I have to walk around in them. Flat shoes actually make me feel less stable, not more.

But everyone's arches are different, so I'm guessing your arches aren't as prominent, and you therefore don't need as much support in that middle area. In the end, just wear what you feel comfortable wearing.
posted by raztaj at 3:44 PM on January 27, 2011

When I started working from home, I went two years without any arch support. I just walked around in sock feet all day long. Putting on any kind of shoe was, like, a Big Event. Maybe a few times a week I'd go to the grocery store, or meet friends for coffee, or whatever.

Then I came down with a painful case of plantar fasciitis. (Is there any other kind?) Caused by: lack of arch support.

Does a lack of arch support automatically give you plantar fasciitis? Clearly not. But for those of us stricken by the problem, good arch support is a godsend.
posted by ErikaB at 3:50 PM on January 27, 2011

I used to have plantar fascitis and once I stopped wearing shoes with ridiculous arch support, it got much better. I have flat feet. I wear Vibrams for some things and flimsy flats or Toms the rest of the time.
posted by elpea at 3:54 PM on January 27, 2011

I think I have regular feet in regards to arches. Maybe a little high.

I never had any issues with shoes until a few years ago. I had a job where I did a lot of walking around on a cement floor in my Converse (the one stars that had heavy rubber soles)

Then I ended up with heel spurs. Then back pain to the point where I could barely walk. Then I threw my hips out of alignment from walking weird because of the spurs and back pain.

Doctor told me to go get a pair of New Balance sneakers because they had great arch support.
I did. And within 2 days, everything went away.

So now... if I know I'll be walking around all day - I won't wear shoes that are flimsy or super heavy. I usually wear New Balance or a pair of shoes that have some built in arch support and feel comfortable.

So. If I was wearing "proper" shoes for the environment I was in (and stood ona stress mat constantly which was almost impossible with the moving around) I would not have had all those painful issues.

Of course, everyone is different.
posted by KogeLiz at 4:11 PM on January 27, 2011

For me, I used to have terrible backaches. As soon as I started wearing shoes with arch support, though, they were gone. Mysterious, but pleasant.
posted by dubadubowbow at 4:20 PM on January 27, 2011

As others are saying, if you do well without arch support, no you don't need it. By wearing Vibrams and going barefoot often you are keeping the muscles in your feet strong. Standing barefoot, I can "give" myself arches by flexing the muscles on the bottom of my feet, but if I have to do that all day long my feet get very tired, and then my knees hurt because I pronate and it all goes painful from there.

So if you don't feel like you need arch support, you don't. For many with high arches or fallen arches or just weak feet, the support helps to align and support the feet such that everything above them feels better.
posted by ldthomps at 4:55 PM on January 27, 2011

I went to a foot doctor with foot pain, which turned out to be a neuroma (enlarged nerve in my foot). The first thing he told me was the flat no support tennis shoes I was wearing was not what I should be wearing on my feet. He recommended shoes with support and recommended New Balance tennis shoes.
posted by sandyp at 5:06 PM on January 27, 2011

Are you having pain anywhere in your lower body?
Not really. Even my back trouble lives in my shoulders and not my lower back.
posted by Karmakaze at 5:30 PM on January 27, 2011

There was just a big article in the New York Times about the complete lack of a scientific understanding of orthotics.

It showed that how people react to them seems totally subjective, and they are just as likely to subconsciously compensate for the device and walk in the same messed up way as before as they are to correct in any way. It also showed that there was no consistency in which orthotics practitioners recommended, nor in which ones people found comfortable:

Every medical specialist Jason has seen tried to correct his flat feet, but with little agreement on how to do it.

Every new podiatrist or orthopedist, he told me, would invariably look at his orthotics and say: “Oh, these aren’t any good. The lab I use makes much better ones. Your injury is probably linked to these poor-fitting orthotics.”

So he tried different orthotic styles, different materials, different orthotics labs with every new doctor.

That is a typical story, Dr. Nigg says. In fact, he adds, there is no need to “correct” a flat foot. All Jason needs to do is strengthen his foot and ankle muscles and then try running without orthotics.

Dr. Nigg says he always wondered what was wrong with having flat feet. Arches, he explains, are an evolutionary remnant, needed by primates that gripped trees with their feet.

“Since we don’t do that anymore, we don’t really need an arch,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Why would we? For landing — no need. For the stance phase — no need. For the takeoff phase — no need. Thus a flat foot is not something that is bad per se.”

So why shouldn’t Jason — or anyone, for that matter — just go to a store and buy whatever shoe feels good, without worrying about “correcting” a perceived biomechanical defect?

“That is exactly what you should do,” Dr. Nigg replied.

So, don't worry about it.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:01 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with those who say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Studies analyzing the correlation between flat feet and physical injury in soldiers have been inconclusive, but none suggest that flat feet are an impediment, at least in soldiers who reached the age of military recruitment without prior foot problems. Instead, in this population, there is a suggestion of more injury in high arched feet. A 2005 study of Royal Australian Air Force recruits that tracked the recruits over the course of their basic training found that neither flat feet nor high arched feet had any impact on physical functioning, injury rates or foot health. If anything, there was a tendency for those with flat feet to have fewer injuries.[10] Another study of 287 Israel Defense Forces recruits found that those with high arches suffered almost four times as many stress fractures as those with the lowest arches. A later study of 449 U.S. Navy special warfare trainees found no significant difference in the incidence of stress fractures among sailors and Marines with different arch heights.

posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:18 PM on January 27, 2011

In defense of shoes in general: the human body evolved to survive to reproductive age, not to live to old age pain-free. It seems the latter is more likely when we wear supportive shoes throughout our lifetimes.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:37 PM on January 27, 2011

Agreeing with several above. If you wear shoes without any special arch support and your feet don't hurt, you don't need it. If you need it-as my flat feet do-you will know it.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2011

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