Brake for Nature

Natural Foot Movement Reverses Plantar Fasciitis

My relentless search to end the searing pain of plantar fasciitis led me to an unconventional solution: natural foot movement. It also introduced me to a whole new world of medicine.  Not only have I substantially reduced my plantar fasciitis pain, enabling me to walk again, but I have changed my entire perspective on health and wellness.  Sadly, I had to suffer for years, run out of options, and become desperate enough to try anything before entering the new and scary realm of Alternative Medicine.  In my mind, Alternative Medicine was a world of potions and magic rather than the evidence-based practice of diagnosis and treatment I believed was at the core of Conventional Medicine.  My new view on medicine and the way I care for my body is nearly the opposite of my former view.  It all started with Correct Toes.

Internet Research

As any modern human with an ailment would do, I Googled plantar fasciitis numerous times over the course of my struggle with the painful condition.  Most sources provided the same old treatment options: ice; stretching; NSAIDs or cortisone shots to reduce inflammation; night splints or boots to hold the feet in a flexed position during sleep; casting to hold the feet in a flexed position night and day; and finally, surgery.

Fairly early in my searches, an advertisement popped up for something called Correct Toes toe spacers that claimed to cure many foot ailments, including plantar fasciitis. At the time I thought “yeah right, if that worked, EVERYONE would be doing it!”  I waded through information on the Internet with an educated, rational mind.  If I found the same facts repeated again and again from different sources, especially reputable sources like medical associations and research publications, I would believe it was probably true. Consequently I ignored this outlier after concluding that it was a gimmick.

Trying the Alternative

One year later and still searching, this advertisement for Correct Toes popped up again.  This time I was desperate.  I had tried expensive, supportive shoes, custom orthotics, stretching, icing, soaking, night splints, massage, and physical therapy.  My plantar fasciitis was not the typical kind. Both of my feet were severely affected. I could not stand for one minute without horrific pain.  Warming up and walking made the pain more intense rather than reducing it.  I wasn’t just hobbling when I first got out of bed or after walking for a long time.  I was hobbling around ALWAYS.  The pain interrupted my brain and affected every aspect of my life.  As long as I was on my feet, nothing stopped the pain. Prescription-strength Motrin numbed my brain but not my feet!

The Correct Toes toe spacers were $65.  I reasoned with myself that since I had already spent hundreds of dollars on shoes and orthotics and treatments, another $65 was nothing.  Any possibility of a benefit was worth the cost.  I followed the link to the Correct Toes website and read more.

Natural Toe Splay

On his website Dr. Ray McClanahan, the inventor of Correct Toes, explains the importance of natural toe splay, especially the placement of the big toe.  His explanation is straightforward, practical, and easily meets the common-sense test.  At birth our toes are spread out, similar to the fingers on our hands.  Our big toes are set apart from the rest of the toes, similar to our thumbs.  As humans we may not use our big toes to hang onto branches like monkeys, but we do need them to balance while standing and walking.

Think about it.  A stable arch requires correctly aligned and structurally strong supports on both sides.  Our feet are arches, some low and some high, and they need the toes on one side and heel on the other to support the arches.  When we shove the big toe to the side in our shoes as if it is a useless and annoying appendage, we undermine the arch.  That’s when we have to introduce supports for the arch in the form of orthotics.  We have disabled our own feet with shoes that squeeze our toes together, and then to solve the problem that we created, we introduce crutches in the form of orthotics! I’m not just talking about dress shoes here.  Even supposedly comfortable, athletic shoes taper at the toes.

A pair of conventional running shoes, showing that they taper at the toes, a cause of plantar fasciitis

These conventional running shoes squeeze the toes together

The Real Cause of Plantar Fasciitis

Exploring Dr. McClanahan’s website further, I finally found a real and logical explanation for plantar fasciitis, or what he calls plantar fasciosis.  Every other website on plantar fasciitis, including those of highly reputable organizations such as the Mayo Clinic and the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society, describe the condition as an overuse injury and list age, physical activity, and high or low foot arches as risk factors.

I remember when my podiatrist said that I would have to make a life-long change to my physical activity. Instead of walking and hiking, I would have to learn to love cycling or swimming.  Really?  At the ripe old age of 32, I had to accept the fact that I might never hike again? As someone who enjoyed taking walks on a daily basis and hikes a few times per week (not at all extreme for a human), I was supposed to believe that my painful condition was a result of OVERUSE!!  This is when my skepticism of Conventional Medicine grew stronger than my skepticism of Alternative Medicine.

Dr. McClanahan explains that plantar fasciosis is caused by a lack of blood flow to the plantar fascia and muscle atrophy placing strain on the fascia, both due to conventional footwear distorting the natural shape of the foot and restricting natural movement.  He uses the suffix –osis rather than –itis for the condition, because the fascia is diseased (tissues die due to lack of blood flow and are torn due to strain) rather than simply inflamed from “overuse.”  This means that conventional treatments like icing to reduce inflammation and stretching will only exacerbate the problem by further reducing blood flow and tearing tissues.

Ding, ding, ding, ding!! Finally, I found a logical explanation for the condition and a possible way to reverse the problem rather than a list of lame methods to manage the pain.  I no longer cared that this new explanation was at odds with EVERY OTHER reference I had found through my Google searches.  Dr. McClanahan’s explanation provided what I had expected from doctors all along: a root cause for my symptoms and a way to remove that cause and allow my body to heal.  This was not some wacky “alternative” medicine; this was SCIENCE!  The fact that Dr. McClanahan was a trained podiatrist who developed Correct Toes while in search of a better, more permanent solution to his own foot pain made this unconventional treatment even more convincing.

Putting Correct Toes to the Test

I was adequately convinced to give the Correct Toes toe spacers a shot.  After 30-something years of squeezing my toes together and ignoring them, I could not spread my toes without forcing them apart with my fingers. I would clearly require the toe spacers to reestablish that natural toe splay.  They are made of silicone, making them extremely flexible, and they were designed to fit comfortably inside of shoes, well, certain shoes.

Minimalist Shoes

The cost of trying Correct Toes would be more than the $65 for the toe spacers.  I also had to purchase a pair of shoes that were designed to fit the toes when spread out in a natural splay.  Not one pair of my existing shoes met that requirement.  My new shoes would also need to be “zero-drop” shoes, meaning that the heel could not be higher than the toes, and they had to be extremely flexible to allow the feet to move naturally with toes spread out. Finally, the toe of the shoe could not be higher than the foot.  This might sound obvious, but have you ever viewed a conventional running shoe from the side?  The toe of the shoe does not even touch the ground!  When you put your feet into those conventional running shoes, your heel is elevated, and your big toe is elevated and shoved to the side.  No wonder the arch in the middle collapses!

Conventional running shoe viewed from the side showing an elevated heel and upturned toe box

This conventional running shoe has an elevated heel and toe.

Luckily the Correct Toes website provides a list of shoes that will accommodate the toe spacers.  The shoe list has grown substantially since I first ordered my Correct Toes.  Back then, the website strongly recommended Lems Primal 2, and I liked the way they looked.  I also ordered a pair of shoes by Altra that appeared to have more cushioning, which I thought was necessary for the pain.  In addition, I chose to order some Injinji toe socks, figuring that the toe spacers would feel most comfortable with socks.

Spreading My Toes

I remember the day my Correct Toes arrived back in June of 2014.  I read all of the instructions and then pulled off my shoes and socks to try them on.  The silicone toe spacers slid easily onto my toes, and I stood up on my carpet and began to gently walk around.  Although I could feel all sorts of previously unknown muscles and connective tissue working and stretching as I walked across the carpet, the plantar fasciitis pain was already significantly reduced! Normally, walking barefoot would make me scream in pain as if knives were being driven into the bottom of my feet. For the first time in years, I experienced good feelings coming from my feet, like a morning stretch or the feel of sand between your toes.  This was GOING TO WORK!

My feet in Injinji toe socks and Correct Toes toe spacers, my solution for plantar fasciitis

My feet in Injinji toe socks and Correct Toes toe spacers, walking in a straight line

Let the big toes lead!

After experiencing an immediate difference with the toe spacers, I was disappointed to be squeezing my toes back into my Brooks running shoes fitted with arch supports the next day. However, the instructions that came with the Correct Toes cautioned new users to go slowly.  Walk barefoot at home for 30 minutes, and add 30 minutes to that each day.  Slowly work your way up to walking outside with the toe spacers.  The feet have to adjust to a new way of walking, and that involves building new muscles and increasing flexibility in places you may have never flexed before.

After a couple of days, I felt like I was reinjuring my feet every time I walked in my old shoes.  The stabbing pain was a strong signal from my feet not to squeeze them into my regular running shoes any longer.  I took a huge risk.  I put on the toe socks, the toe spacers, and the Altra running shoes, and I went to work. As soon as I got outside and began the walk to my car, I felt all kinds of extreme stretching in my feet and knew I had probably made the wrong decision.  Walking was HARD!  On the other hand, walking was hard with my old shoes.  What to do?!

I pushed on.  It was a bizarre experience, and my feet were in a lot of pain.  However, the pain felt more like extreme muscle soreness after a tough workout rather than the sharp, damaging pains I felt with my old shoes.  I was worried about injuring my feet in a new way, but I couldn’t bear to force my feet back into my old shoes.

Looking down at my feet, wearing the Altra running shoes

My feet in the Altra shoes

Finding What Worked for Me

I decided to try the Lems Primal 2 shoes.  I also experimented with thinner toe socks.  Having been under the impression that more cushioning would be better for extremely sore feet, I was surprised to find that the Primal 2s with thinner toe socks felt much better.  I was adapting to a new way of moving my feet, and the thicker soles of the Altra running shoes required more foot strength to roll through each step.  The soles of the Primal 2s look like a second skin for the feet.  Their flexibility ensured that my feet only had to work as hard as if they were bare. For me, the Primal 2s and lightweight Injinji toe socks were the ultimate combination.

Although I took a risk by wearing my toe spacers and minimalist shoes full-time just a few days after trying them on for the first time, my gamble paid off.  I was on my way to recovery.  I walked slowly and carefully, and I showed my feet some love with daily stretches and massages.  One particularly helpful routine that I have done almost daily for several years is “Yoga Therapy for the Neck and Feet” by Erica Fritch. I also found that I cannot live without Dr. McClanahan’s recommended metatarsal pads.  I no longer need support for the main arches of my feet now that they have the support of my big toes.  However, the metatarsal support seems to be essential for my feet.

Happy Feet

It took about one full year for my feet to adapt to moving with my toes spread out.  However, I am ABLE TO WALK AGAIN without pain!  I have lived in Lems Primal 2 shoes with Correct Toes toe spacers for four years now.  While I own several pairs of Lems Primal 2s, I have finally found another shoe that works for me: Xero Shoes’ DayLite Hiker.  The good news is that the availability of minimalist shoes, especially those with adequate room for the big toe to do its job, is growing all the time.  I maintain a list of shoes I want to try in the future.

Sitting on a rock at Crater Lake, removing my Lems shoes, socks, and toe spacers

Removing my trusted Lems shoes at Crater Lake

Looking down at my feet while sitting, wearing my Daylite Hikers by Xero Shoes

Showing off my DayLite Hikers by Xero Shoes

Rather than resorting to a lifetime of plantar fasciitis pain and relying on crutches and Band-Aids, such as orthotics, icing, and nighttime boots, I set my feet free and allowed them to learn how to function the way they were born to function.  I am grateful for Dr. Ray McClanahan, and even for Google displaying his advertisement!  I encourage anyone with chronic foot pain to take the plunge and make the life change to minimalist shoes with the help of Correct Toes.

If you read my other posts on Health & Wellness, you will learn that there is far more to my chronic pain than the physical alignment of my feet.  I suffer from a chronic illness with potential origins in tick-borne disease, mold exposure, and possibly other unknown exposures.  I was not 100 percent cured by using Correct Toes, and yet I still benefitted substantially.  A healthy individual (i.e., one who recovers quickly after physical activity, builds muscle after strength training, and generally feels well) will likely heal fully from plantar fasciitis if the problem (i.e., toe-squeezing shoes) is removed.

The body wants to heal from injuries and will do everything it can to heal.  However, if the immune system is busy battling something else, healing is slow and re-injury occurs easily.  I fall into this category.  I am trying to get to the root cause of my busy immune system so that I can fully heal. In the meantime, removing the structural problem that was affecting my feet has helped me tremendously.

Socks in the sand and shoes in the hand

My first pair of Lems Primal 2 shoes, well worn

My first pair of Lems explored many miles with me

A New and Refreshing View on Medicine

Circling back to the subject of Alternative Medicine, my venture into the realm of minimalist shoes and natural foot movement as a desperate attempt to resolve my severe foot pain opened the door to a place I never knew existed.  That is a place of hope; a place where science is used to identify barriers to healing and remove them; a place where the body’s own natural abilities are respected, encouraged, and assisted; and a place where the body is treated with kindness.  The titles for this place include Natural Medicine, Functional Medicine, and Integrative Medicine.

Many people call this world Alternative Medicine.  In my opinion, this term generates the wrong idea about this other world of medicine. Alternative Medicine used to be equivalent in my mind to “alternative facts,” meaning not real.  What I have discovered is exactly the opposite.  Alternative Medicine does what I expected Conventional Medicine to do all along: find a cause for illness and remove it, if possible, or assist the body in managing it.  Instead, Conventional Medicine seems most concerned with numbing the body’s signals that something is wrong by addressing only symptoms.  I propose a new term for Alternative Medicine: Real Medicine.

Since stepping through the door to the other side of medicine, I am continually learning something new to help me in my healing journey.  I plan to share more of what I have learned in future posts.  The biggest lesson I learned from my experiment with Correct Toes is so much bigger than my feet.  I want to share this extremely important life lesson with you here.

BELIEVE YOUR BODY.  YOUR BODY IS NOT A MACHINE, SEPARATE FROM YOUR MIND.  YOUR BODY IS YOU.  WHEN YOUR DOCTOR RUNS TESTS AND THEN TELLS YOU EVERYTHING IS NORMAL, BUT YOUR BODY IS SENDING A DIFFERENT MESSAGE, BELIEVE YOUR BODY.  DON’T IGNORE IT.  DON’T TELL YOURSELF IT MUST BE ALL IN YOUR HEAD.  DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

BE KIND TO YOUR BODY.  DON’T HATE IT FOR FAILING YOU.  INSTEAD, LOVE IT FOR ALWAYS TRYING TO DO WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU.  TEND TO YOUR BODY.  RESPECT YOUR BODY.  TRUST YOUR BODY.

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