There is a very interesting (and long) article about whether bare feet are better at the Neuroanthropology site. The article is well supported with scientific articles.
The article’s discussion of “support” and what is “natural” got me thinking about a different way to look at things.
[A repost, slightly edited to update a link.]
Here’s a portion of what the article says:
Patterns of bone growth and remodeling due to use (commonly referred to loosely as ‘Wolff’s law,’ see Ruff et al. 2006) suggest that a shift in toe use and the increased support for the bones of the feet provided by habitually worn shoes, will lead to differences in bone structure between habitually shod and unshod populations (see, for example, Sim-Fook and Hodgson 1958). Bound together laterally and ‘supported’ by an arched shoes, the foot cannot act as efficiently as a shock absorber; at the same time, less dynamic loading on the bones means that the bones will be less robust. Shoes, then, have a range of developmental effects, from low-level, constant pressure and abrasion to a form of protection which leads to greater fragility.
As a result, Zipfel and Berger (2007) recorded substantially higher rates of bone pathology in the feet of shod populations that they studied (European, Sotho and Zulu) than in pre-pastoralist South African populations who likely were habitually barefoot foragers. Although Erik Trinkaus’ work (see below) suggests that pathologies caused by shoes might be uneven distributed among the bones of the feet, Zipfel and Berger (ibid.: 209) found ‘the foot on the pre-pastoralist group is uniformly “healthier” than the modern groups.’
(Emphasis in original.)
Additionally, it seems that the grand solution offered by so many podiatrists to foot problems is some new sort of orthotic that provides “support”. We also see advertisements and products such as Dr. Scholl’s Footmapping technology that tell you just what is wrong with your feet. Have you ever noticed that this technology always finds something wrong with your feet, and that they always just happen to have a custom orthotic to fix it?
Somehow, it just never seems to come out that it is the shoes that are causing those problems in the first place. The San Diego County Podiatric Medical Society site states that
Seventy-five percent of Americans will experience foot health problems of varying degrees of severity at one time or another in their lives.
We accept this with equanimity. Yet, as the Neuroanthropology article points out, barefooted populations just don’t have these sorts of constant and unremitting difficulties with their feet.
I’m reminded of a similar situation with back braces, since humans seem to have even more problems with their backs than they do with their (shod) feet. For the longest time, back braces were recommended to “support” the backs of employees in the workplace. However, when the study was done, it was shown that the braces had no effect at all. I’d even argue that constant brace-wearing weakens the back muscles. Once the back becomes dependent on the brace, the muscles just don’t have the strength they need. In fact, other studies show that bed rest is not an effective treatment for lower back pain. It’s better to keep those muscles moving and exercising.
To relate it back to the effect of footwear and support, it’s as if we’d all gotten used to always wearing back braces. We would think that our backs really needed them for support, but it was really the braces themselves that dictated that support was needed. To take the analogy further, additionally consider that the braces being worn forced the back into a peculiar, stooped posture (for when feet are crammed into shoes, they are pressed into a terribly unnatural shape, as noted in the Neuroanthropology article). Furthermore, we’d see back “specialists” recommending “orthotics”, or specially designed and shaped back braces. We’d see different companies competing to come up with the best back orthotic. We’d see a Dr. Spine’s special “Backmapping” device that would tell you just what sort of orthotic your spine needed.
But nobody would actually consider the possibility of not wearing the stupid back brace and letting the muscles regenerate themselves.
And that’s where all too many people stand with shoes today.