When it comes to easing the symptoms of arthritis, one solution can be found in your closet. “The role of footwear in managing arthritis is super important,” says Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, a podiatric surgeon in New York City.
To understand why, think back to the old song that explains how the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone, and so on. Feet are the foundation of the body and everything is connected to them (in medical lingo it’s called the kinetic chain).
“When your feet are supported, it sets the stage for the rest of your skeleton to be in better alignment,” says Dr. Sutera. Learn more about how different kinds of arthritis affect your feet here.
The upshot: Even if your arthritis is in your knees or hips, wearing the right shoes can have a very dramatic effect on it affects you.
The Best Shoe Brands for Arthritis
There’s a host of shoe manufacturers known for being an especially good fit for people who have arthritis. Clark’s, Vionic, Orthofeet, and Klogs are some of the brands both recommended by members the CreakyJoints community and approved by the foot experts we talked to. Mephisto, Drew, and Ecco are other good options.
When shopping for shoes, use the following podiatrist-approved tips to find footwear that offers support and comfort — and makes it easier to manage your condition.
Tips for Buying the Right Shoes for Arthritis
1. Make sure the shoe shape matches your foot shape
Whether you have inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or the more common osteoarthritis (OA), many people need a shoe with a roomy toe box to accommodate the bunions, hammertoes, and deformed joints that often accompany their disease.
“These pressure points can be excruciating for already tender arthritic feet,” says Jeffrey Hurless, DPM, a podiatric surgeon in Thousand Oaks, California, and founder and medical director of HealthyFeetStore.com, a resource for shoes for people with arthritis.
To avoid aggravating problems (or creating new ones), pay special attention to the fit of the shoe’s width. Make sure to purchase a wide or extra-wide shoe if necessary. Don’t make the mistake of just going up a shoe size to get extra space. If you just get a longer shoe you’ll alter your flex point, a predetermined spot in the sole of the shoe that’s supposed to bend where your toe joints bend.
“If your shoe bends in a spot it shouldn’t that can create another set of problems,” explains Dr. Hurless.
One easy way to know if a shoe might be a good fit for you: Take a paper tracing of your foot with you when shopping and place any shoe you’re thinking of buying on top of it. If the shoe is narrower or shorter than the tracing, don’t bother trying it on.
2. Look for shoes that offer lots of support
“I can’t tell you how many people come through my clinic with sore feet and they’re wearing the most non-supportive shoes,” says Dr. Hurless. Maximum support is paramount for easing pain in people with arthritis. “The more support a shoe provides, the less work the foot does with every single step,” he says.
You get support primarily from the sole of the shoe — it should be wide, rigid, and only bend where your foot bends (at the toes) — and a stable heel counter, the back of the shoe that cups your heel and keeps your foot in place, which helps to prevent friction and pain.
3. Consider rocker soles
These slightly curved soles gently propel you through the gait cycle, distributing your weight more evenly to reduce the strain of walking on the foot, ankle, and toes. People who live with both RA and OA may benefit from shoes with rocker soles, which in small studies have been shown to reduce joint pain.
4. Get the right type of material
Especially if you have issues like bunions or hammertoes, pick a shoe made of a material that’s soft and accommodating. “A rigid material will absolutely cause pain and potentially even sores where those prominences are,” says Dr. Hurless. Leather and mesh can be good options but also look for shoes designed with a synthetic stretchy fabric, such as neoprene, which literally allows deformities to pop out.
5. Look for shoes with removeable insoles
Orthotics are one of the main treatments for people with arthritis. “They help to more evenly distribute weight throughout the foot, taking pressure off of painful spots like the big toe joint or the midfoot,” says Dr. Hurless.
Shoes with removeable insoles allow you to put in your own customized or over-the-counter orthotics without making the shoe too tight.
Another smart feature for arthritic feet with severe deformities like hammertoes are shoes that offer extra or added depth, which allows your foot to go in ¼ inch or ½ inch deeper than it would in a standard shoe. This gives you more room in the shoe (so hammertoes won’t rub on the top of the toe box) and provides adequate space for a custom orthotic.
6. Aim for easy adjustability
The more adjustability to a shoe, the easier it is to fit. This is important since you may need to accommodate changes in foot size and shape during arthritis flare-ups.
Tying shoes can be difficult if you have arthritis in your hands, so consider elastic laces, which can ensure a snug fit with one pull and even allow you to slip into already-tied shoes.
Other options include Velcro closings or zipper fastenings, which can be done up and/or adjusted with only one hand. Shoes with elastic inserts can also provide feet with more stretching room.
7. Ditch high heels
High heels may be stylish, but they’re not good for arthritis. They put your foot in an unnatural position that takes a toll over time. If you must don heels, choose shoes with a heel height of no more than 1 to 1.5 inches, advises Dr. Hurless. “That’s probably the max you want to go before it really starts having an effect on the forefoot.”
The foot is designed to distribute pressure evenly when you walk. Having excess pressure in the forefoot from wearing high heels can cause or worsen many foot problems, including corns, hammertoes, bunions, and plantar fasciitis. (A 2½-inch heel can increase the load on the forefoot by 75 percent.)
And it’s not just your feet that suffer. High heels place excessive stress on the back, hips, and knees, three other common spots for arthritis. Hence the conclusion of a 2015 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research that high heels can contribute to an increased risk of osteoarthritis.
8. But be careful with flats
Flats aren’t necessarily ideal for arthritis either, especially if they’re rigid and pointy. If you do wear flats, choose a pair that offers enough shock absorption and arch support. “Look on the inside and make sure the shoe isn’t completely flat,” says Dr. Sutera. “Even the littlest bump in the middle can make a big difference.”
Another tip: While flexibility in a shoe is important — an overly stiff shoe can prevent a normal walking motion — too much isn’t good either. If you can twist the shoe into a spiral or bend it in half from toe to heel, it’s not a good shoe for arthritis.
Arthritis Footwear Mistakes
1. Mistake: You have a favorite pair of shoes
Wearing the same pair of shoes every day — even if it’s a foot-friendly style — can lead to overuse syndrome. Shoes force your feet to hit the ground in a certain way. Over time that can strain muscles, bones, and joints, and lead to stress injuries. “Your body loves variety and moderation,” explains Dr. Sutera, who recommends having at least three pairs of shoes that you alternate throughout the week.
2. Mistake: You wear the wrong size shoe
Research shows that most people — 88 percent of women and 70 percent of men — squeeze their feet into shoes that are too small. “You can’t be a stickler about being a certain shoe size your whole life,” says Dr. Sutera. “Every shoe company makes their shoes to a different standard, so just like with jeans and T-shirts, you may have three different sizes of shoes in your closet.” To know where you stand size-wise, have your feet measured whenever you buy new shoes.
3. Mistake: You shoe shop in the morning
Feet tend to swell during the day, so buy shoes in the afternoon when your feet are at their largest. Shoes should be snug — not too loose and not too tight. There should be about a half-inch of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Make sure you try shoes on both feet as your feet may be a different size and width. If one foot is larger than the other, buy a size that fits the larger foot.