Should you really wear cushioned (or barefoot) shoes with hypermobility issues?

Update April 2023: Without removing this post in its original form, as some of what I share in it remains true in my experience, and also in the interests of keeping this topic open as a “discussion” point since there is no right or wrong answer, I feel the need to add some new personal observations to it.

Lately, I have been having a severe flare-up of ME/CFS, meaning I am extremely fatigued all of the time and my exercise is significantly reduced to the very occasional walk on days when its not pushing myself too hard to even do this. However, for almost two weeks at the start of this flare, I was pretty much forced to stay more mobile than I was capable of due to a family crisis that meant staying away from home to be of support to my in-law following a death in the family. Those 10 days or so required of me that I do more walking than usual, some of which was simply not possible towards the end of the trip as my extreme fatigue and pain made hills impossible and I had to opt out, but as were staying on a hill for the first few days I was literally forced to walk up and down a steep incline for the first few days just to get to the front door.

It was during that time that some issues I have recently been having using barefoot shoes really came into focus. Lately, I had been noticing worsened pain in my feet and referred into my knees (which are especially bad at the moment), also in my hips and lower back. Conversely, when I put on another pair of boots that I bought in January and which, for the first time in ages, weren’t the barefoot kind and had a small heel, my pain seemed less. In fact, when I put them on, I noticed a real sense of relief and increased comfort from the very get-go, even before walking in them. During the trip in question, I had both pairs of boots with me…and it was, decidedly, the “normal” boots that felt more comfortable and (important to me, in the midst of an ME flare-up) far less fatiguing. By contrast, I would get home feeling wrecked and weary, highly overstimulated, with so much more pain in joints etc, if I had done what I usually considered to be the right thing and worn my “Vivos”.

I guess, at first, I didn’t want to “hear” this news as I have been such a passionate advocate of barefoot footwear for such a long time that it was hard to have to face doing a u-turn. I admit, in our house, this is made worse by the fact that my husband is just so passionate about barefoot walking and its health benefits that he is actively disparaging of other footwear, to the point I that I felt like I was committing a cardinal sin purchasing the “normal” boots when I did, but I really wanted a smart pair to wear when I was out seeing other people and part of me was deeply nostalgic for the kind of clothing that I used to wear when I was fit and well. If I hadn’t bought some alternative boots and allowed myself the contrast, I may never have realised that its possible to feel better in something different and may have just slogged it out in barefoot shoes without questioning it.

Now, even my husband has had to admit that maybe barefoot shoes don’t always work so well for me, given my hypermobility plus my other chronic conditions. What has further prompted me to add this update to the post is a comment just received from one of my readers, see below, which seems to echo everything I have experienced for myself, including the fact that she was such a passionate advocate of barefoot walking herself…at first…and also the fact that her husband loves them but she, being made differently, cannot enjoy the same benefits given she has hEDS.

All of my symptoms have become more severe in recent months, so maybe I had relative youth on my side when I first gained benefits from barefoot walking, mitigating the effects of my hypermobility. My knee issues have also become profoundly worse so perhaps my tolerance of barefoot has gone down lately. Being post-menopause has had a profound effect on my ability to adapt to different movement styles, or lack thereof, and walking the barefoot way does require a major, full-body, adjustment after however many decades of your life (in my case, more than five) conditioning you to walk another way. Also, its well known that barefoot walking does work-out more of the body than normal shoes, which in a healthy person’s case is likely a huge benefit but, to someone whose body is in constant pain or fatigue, perhaps this can prove too much!

Also, and I strongly maintain this, actively cushioned shoes (I’m thinking of brands like Sketchers and memory foam trainers here, and I see quite a few people with hEDS say that Sketchers make them worse over time) are still all wrong for me as they are akin to walking on sand or snow and put so much more strain on my inbuilt “suspension”. What I seem to benefit from is a well made, supportive and preferably ankle high shoe that has just enough cushioning effect to dull the repetitive injury of a foot striking on concrete, without causing me to roll…at all…from side to side. I also seem to benefit from a modest heel of no more than 2 inches and good arch support.

At the moment, I am reappraising Fitflops as they get such good reviews from some hypermobile people on forums but I need them to have good ankle support if I am to spend any considerable time in them and I still feel I could use more arch support to prevent rolling to the side (though the ankle support part of the equation will help with that…I currently have on an old pair of Fitflop ankle boots from my pre-barefoot days, with spare socks stuffed down them to make the ankle more stable). What I notice is what a blessed relief it is to walk around in them rather than barefoot…and how they also give energy back to me (energy I thought I had lost for all time) such that I am able to be on my feet for longer and even get up and down stairs better than usual compared to my recent average!

As said previously, this is all my personal experience, shared anecdotally, but I also feel there has been a distinct progression through my reactions to different footwear in response to the ageing process and, in hindsight, I am left wondering whether I did myself a favour (or not!) switching to barefoot during perimenopause, expecting my already struggling body to learn an entirely new way of walking on top of all the other structural changes taking place during that phase. My body certainly became much more hyper mobile over the menopause process as oestrogen levels tanked and whilst this, perhaps, made me more receptive to making changes, initially (being more flexible) the longer term consequence of hypermobility is to cause more tension and rigidity…and pain, and all the more if you have recently overdone things. Changing footwear and thus walking style may well count as such and there is now a comfort to coming back to my old walking posture in some more familiar shoes.

Perhaps some of the benefits I initially experienced with barefoot were the relief of giving up over-cushioned shoes that I had worn (Sketchers again and who-knows how many memory foam inserts) to try and mitigate my increasing pain and, as ever, there is a happy medium to be found. I am determined to share the whole of my journey through this dilemma as the gift is in the “mistakes” as well as the recalibrations and, who knows, my thinking outloud might help someone else to get to their most comfortable place quicker.

All I can do is address where I am today and, for the moment, my observations tell me I can walk better, for longer and with less repercussions including fatigue if I have a slight heel lift and arch support. If nothing else, this whole experience has taught me not to have a closed mind, nor to assume that what suits me today will continue to suit me in a few months or years time.

Here’s my original post on this topic.

This post is going to be short and sweet but is just something I really, passionately want to put out there. I am always reading, in just so many places, that the only kind of footwear you should even consider if you have hypermobility issues such as joint laxity, hypermobile type EDS or even Chiari malformation and cervical instability, also chronic pain issues such as fibromyalgia, is the kind that is as soft and cushioning underfoot as possible and, usually, they will also tell you the shoe has to be “well-structured”.

This advice is misguided, in my personal opinion…derived from direct experience, including all that l that I have had to learn “the hard way” and from reading and watching all I can about barefoot technology and how the human foot is designed to work with the rest of the body. Across all the many years I have had chronic pain and hypermobility issues, it is a far less structured, completely uncushioned type of shoe that has delivered me the best results, and then some.

What (in my opinion) you would be much better doing is learning how to walk properly all over again (not said in a patronising way…I had to do this too!) and then learn to befriend a well-researched barefoot type footbed such as Vivobarefoot (this is the only brand I have tried and so I will specifically talk about those, plus they also provide a wealth of research and learning resources on their website and YouTube). They will take some getting used to, for sure, and the method of walking you need to adopt involves unlearning the classic heel-strike way that most people are entrained to use from the very moment the freely running and exploring toddler is measured-up and rammed (much too early!) into a fixed, often heinously distorted (for fashion’s sake), human-devised shoe shape, and instead learn to properly roll the foot as it was natually designed to do. In fact, as we all would have done, before shoes were invented or if we were encouraged from birth to walk as Nature intended.

For far more eloquent and scientifc extrapolation of this, I refer you to this and other short how-to videos by Vivobarefoot. What you will learn is not difficult to master and will benefit all your other joints as you learn not to refer strain up into knees and beyond. By the way, I’m not affiliated to Vivobarefoot in any way, I just seem to have a cupboard full of them!

The point I want to make is that without my shoes (and thus my feet) being on my side, I really don’t know how I would cope with my hypermobility issues when they are at their worst as they are currently (triggered by the time of year). Honestly, I think I would be trapped at home in such inertia that my muscles would atrophy and all the very spirit would go out of me languishing in a chair rather than risk my daily walks by the river. Instead, courtesy of my Vivo walking boots, I am able to go out pretty much every day and, as long as my knees and neck and hip girdle are well suported and reasonably comfortable (plus I also use my Nordic poles) my feet just roll along and are in absolute bliss, plus there is no refered pain…NONE…to my knees, hips, neck or other areas.

I know this because I had such refered pain FOR YEARS before I found Vivos.

Even then (and I must have purchased my first pair 8 or 9 years ago) I tended to only wear my barefoot footwear in the summer because I told myself I needed more grip and protection in the winter months. Even as recenly as last year, I pulled on reasonably heavy thick rubber-soled wellies to walk most days in all the slush and sludge of my local walks in winter…and it wrecked all the considerable headway I had made with reducing my joint pain in the summer. By February, I had such foot pain it was almost unbearable; my soles burned, my bones ached, I had laxity issues in my ankles and other small bones and rock-hard painfiul calouses beneath my “great” toe. My husband nagged me to give up all the other footwear and use only Vivos from that point…and my callouses miraculously disappeared, the pain went away, the burning pain completely evaporated and my feet became, conspicuously, the least problematic part of my entire anatomy!

Photo by Jan Romero on Unsplash

One other thing I notice is how strong my feet and ankles have become, like they can really be trusted not to let me down, though I have weaknesses in these areas for decades. When all your other joints are lax, this feels so important!

Now, I wear Vivo footwear all year round, with lighter walking boots or shoes in summer (though I prefer the boots as they support my ankle), Vivo shoes when we go out, Vivo long boots when I want to be smart and more supported and grip-soled Vivo walking boots when I go out for my daily constitutional in winter (the wonderful thing is that, though they are warm and grippy, they aren’t at all heavy, so I hardly know I have them on, wheareas the sheer weight of so many other types of footwear can be a literal pain with chronic pain issues). I can’t tell you how much difference it has made to my ability to keep getting my exercise daily and also not to have to pay the price for it when I get home. In fact, it was the fact my feet felt so wonderfully OUT of pain, so utterly comfortable as I walked along today that made me want to share this post, given my feet used to cause me just soooo much relentless pain I would want to saw them off from the end of my limbs at times. Now, all those years and years and years of footpain is all gone, even at my worse time of year.

So, when I keep seeing those well-meaning advisories about cushioned footbeds (I read it in two places relative to hypermobility and EDS just last night), it makes me want to weep. I tried all those shoes, even some well known brands, for a few years when I first noticed my hypermobility issues were gtting worse. What happened was that I got even worse, and when I put them back on recently to compare (before sending them off to shoe-recycling…) I could see why as I felt as though I was all at-sea, rolling around and out of touch with the ground, putting so much additional strain on my internal “suspension”. Its like when you put your car in comfort mode and the car’s suspension seems to roll from side to side instead of taking all the bumps of the road. What this does is force the body to hold even stronger against all that rocking, like being on a fairground ride; and with hypermobility this causes untold strain as you are already struggling to do that very thing, given all your internal structures are also lax. Laxity plus laxity (inside and out) creates a double problem and that seems very obvious to me now.

One other improvement I want to mention as a sufferer of Reynaud’s and neuropathy, I find that the way my foot rolls correctly in these shoes has vastly reduced episodes of numbness and tingling pain at times that I have been walking as it ensures good, steady circulation into the foot and down to the toes. When I wore more cushioned shoes, I would frequently return home with numb toes or chillblain-like sensations as I took my shoes off.

When you can trust your feet, when you can feel the earth beneath you (people always seem to think this means barefoot shoes are painful as though you can feel every sharp lump and bump…not so!) and when your body knows it can really trust where it is putting its weight down, your whole body relaxes, you become more instinctual in the way you walk, your balance improves, your left and right hemispheres get toned in their relationship with one another as you walk out in nature, and you come back feeling happier, healthier and as though you have had an all-round therapy just from putting one foot in front of the other. Its how Nature intended us to be…and it is deeply, deeply healing. We need to use this; its foundational for good health!

Those other shoes (trainers especially!) feel like they are devices of detachment, cutting you off from all that could be of most help to your recovery, most especially all that is natural and innate. That’s how I feel about it, my husband too (and he’s a trained yoga teacher who really understands how the body works at a very deep level), so I just wanted to share.

For more about how modern “advances” in footwear have actually wrecked the human foot, see this trailer for the film Shoespiracy.

Disclaimer: This blog, it’s content and any material linked to it are presented for autobiographical, anecdotal purposes only. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or prescribing. This article does not constitute a recommendation or lifestyle advice. Opinions are my own based on personal experience.Please seek medical advice from a professional if you are experiencing any symptoms or before you change your diet, your shoes, your habits or anything else.

4 thoughts on “Should you really wear cushioned (or barefoot) shoes with hypermobility issues?

  1. I’ve been mostly barefoot and stocking footed for nearly two years, with my only shoes being garden slippers, and my feet and joints feel much more comfortable than during shod days! Glad you wrote this, and especially glad you found something that works for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have hEDS and have been wearing barefoot shoes since before I was diagnosed. I can tell you that the pain in my feet after wearing them, even just through a grocery store, has gotten drastically worse since ‘going barefoot’. I love the idea of being barefoot. I love the flexibility, the connection to the ground, and most of all I absolutely love the spacious toe boxes… but I just can’t do it anymore. The pain now is like knives stabbing through my feet. My joints look worse on MRI imaging than before. It really is different for every person. My husband does not have EDS, and going barefoot years ago was one of the best decisions he made for his body. For me- it has been an incredibly disappointing, and sad, hell.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate your comment and it turns out to be so timely as I have recently been having issues with barefoot shoes myself. Prompted by your experiences, I have decided to add a sizeable update to my original post so, if you go back to it now, you will read that I have modified my opinion about barefoot walking for hEDS and am now considering either a partial or full switch-over to something more supportive and heel-raised. Thanks again for feeding back as it helped me to crystalise my new thinking on this topic.


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