Dangers of Walking Barefoot

Dangers of Walking Barefoot


We've heard it a thousand times: don't walk around barefoot. And usually we listen because we want to avoid hurting ourselves such as stepping on glass or we want to avoid picking up skin infections such as warts. Well, here's some news for you: there’s a whole lot more to worry about when it comes to walking around barefoot.

When we walk barefoot, we are not only putting the skin of our feet at risk but also the biomechanical function of the foot. Our feet are naturally arched, and even though many generations before us walked barefoot, we should avoid it. Walking barefoot on hard surfaces causes our foot to collapse which can lead to a tremendous amount of stress not only to the foot but to the rest of the body too. Our feet naturally pronate (turn in) during the gait (step) cycle, however when we walk barefoot we pronate for a longer period which then alters the biomechanics and distribution of pressure and weight across the foot. This imbalance may increase the progression of underlying foot deformities, such as bunions and hammertoes, and lead to painful conditions associated with excessive pronation, such as arch/heel pain, shin splints/posterior tibial tendonitis, and Achilles tendonitis.  This imbalance can then translate upward affecting other parts of the body, such as our knees and back. This is why our bodies can feel sore after a long day of being barefoot or wearing shoes that do not support the arch of the foot, such as most flip-flops and other flat shoes.

Apart from causing an achy body, walking barefoot also exposes our feet to bacterial and fungal organisms that can infect the skin and nails. These organisms can lead to infections that change the appearance, odor, and comfort of the foot, such as athlete's foot or fungus. Often, people with thickened, dry, and scaly feet assume that their feet need to be scrubbed and moisturized, when in fact what they need is an anti-fungal cream because they have a fungal infection causing the scaliness. Fungus tends to grow in dark and moist environments. People can easily contract these infections, as they are highly contagious, by walking barefoot in communal bathing facilities and gyms. These organisms first infect the skin and then they may infect the nails leading to thickening, discoloration, and brittleness. Both conditions become not only unsightly but also contribute to an unpleasant odor. Eventually the skin and nails become painful as the skin begins to fissure and crack and the nail thickens putting more pressure on the toes.

Although nobody should walk around barefoot due to the risk of infection, there are some people who may be putting themselves at greater risk by doing so. For example, people with diabetes should never go barefoot in public spaces to avoid contracting a skin infection on their feet. If a person with diabetes contracts a skin infection, such as fungus, the disease changes the normal hydration of the skin which then alters the texture, tone, and turgor of the skin. This dryness and hardness may lead to fissuring of the skin which increases the chances of contracting another infection.  The infection is then exacerbated by the fact that diabetic people have a compromised immunity and thus a greater difficulty fighting off infection. A bad infection could lead to amputation. Another group of people who may be prone to such infections are those in labor professions, such as construction workers and farmers, who may have to use boots for prolonged periods of time in outdoor environments where they are exposed to moisture and microbes.

Treating a fungal or bacterial infection is extremely important, even on your feet. Your feet are extra special. They take you everywhere. It’s imperative that you take care of them. The best way to treat an infection is to first determine whether the infection is bacterial or fungal. Your podiatrist can help you. Most infections that present with scaliness and itchiness to the bottom of the foot and in between the toes are a result of a fungal infection commonly known as athlete’s foot.  It’s worth trying an over the counter anti-fungal first for two to three weeks to see if some improvement in the condition is noted. Also, regularly spraying a disinfectant, such as Lysol Disinfectant Spray, into your shoes to kill any organism present in the shoe could help you to avoid getting an infection and preventing one from spreading. If the anti-fungal over the counter medication fails to resolve the condition, a prescription-strength medication should do the trick. If there is a fungal infection in your nails then a prescription topical medication, and sometimes, an oral medication may be preferable.  Laser treatment can also be an option, but it does not always work. To be sure of what kind of infection you may have and how to treat it, see a podiatrist. A podiatrist will identify the condition and provide a treatment.

Now, I don’t want you to become obsessive about this. After all, we are human, and we do walk barefoot. Some of us prefer to be barefoot. If you do contract an infection, it’s not the end of the world.  Avoid walking barefoot outside of the house unless necessary, such as when participating in yoga. When you do walk barefoot cleanse your feet immediately afterward to avoid contracting an infection. You can use baby wipes to first clean the feet and then an anti-fungal spray to kill any fungus before it causes an infection. You can also contract an infection from walking barefoot at home if your spouse or roommate has an infection. I recommend spraying Lysol Disinfectant Spray on the bathroom floor and into the shower to help kill any microbes that may be present. Fungal infections can happen anywhere. The odds increase when you walk in an environment that is wet as these organisms grow in dark and moist places. Most people will contract athlete’s foot in the winter because they wear thicker shoes and boots that air out less and may be exposed to more moisture from rain or snow. However, these infections are still common during the hotter months because people go to pools and gyms more often and walk barefoot at these locations.

Now, walking barefoot is not all bad. There are benefits to walking barefoot on soft surfaces, such as carpeted flooring, grass, or sand. Walking on these surfaces helps to improve circulation which increases the nourishment of nerves, muscles, and bone of the foot and helps minimize swelling of the lower extremities.  Walking barefoot may also help improve the strength and flexibility of the muscles and ligaments of the foot which improves the function of the foot, reducing injuries of the foot, and improving posture and balance of the body. Walking barefoot on a clean and soft surface is perfectly fine. So, go ahead, on a nice, dry day, take your shoes off and dance on the grass. (Just don’t forget to clean them!)

Author
Dr. Miguel Cunha Dr. Miguel Cunha, founder of Gotham Footcare and a leading podiatrist in Manhattan, is a highly trained and skilled foot and ankle surgeon with experience treating a wide array of foot and ankle conditions from minor problems to complex reconstructive foot and ankle surgery. Dr. Cunha takes pride in having a genuine interest in each and every one of his patients while providing them the utmost compassion and exceptional care.

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