Healthy toes are straight, spaced, and free of the many problems that plague so many people in shod, or shoe wearing, populations. Most conventional footwear, including running shoes, possesses tapering toe boxes that force your toes into a wedge-like position. This design characteristic, along with heel elevation and toe spring, causes many foot and toe deformities over time.
Unshod populations, or groups of people who go barefoot or wear open-toe sandals or other minimalist footwear, have some of the healthiest toes. Examination of feet in unshod populations throughout South and Central America, Africa, and Asia reveals toes that are well splayed and devoid of hammertoes, clawtoes, bunions, and other structural problems.
Healthy feet are widest at the ends of your toes (not at the ball of your foot, as is common among long-term shoe-wearing individuals) and possess toenails that are fungus free and fully intact. Healthy feet and toes are the visual evidence of a life lived in balance with nature. In many cases, healthy feet and toes are prognostic indicators of biomechanical function and musculoskeletal health throughout the rest of your body.
Toes and Activity
Your toes are among the most important body parts used in many physical activities. Your toes help you generate the propulsive force required for walking and running, and they provide you with enhanced balance, especially when they are allowed to splay the way nature intended.
Balance is particularly enhanced when your big toe is in line with the inside edge of your foot and your little toe is in line with the outside edge of your foot—a scenario that is less common in shoe wearing individuals, whose big and little toes often deviate toward the foot’s midline. Your big and little toes, in the wide, splayed configuration, and in combination with your heel, serve as an important tripod of support.
Your toes are also important for proprioception and providing tactile feedback. Proprioception is your body’s ability to sense the position of its parts, both at rest and during movement. Tactile feedback is the information your body parts send to your brain about how your surrounding environment, including the ground you walk upon, is affecting your body. Both proprioception in and tactile feedback from your toes help you accurately place your footfalls during running and walking.
Misaligned Toe Problems
Maintaining optimal toe alignment and health is important for avoiding foot and other lower extremity problems. Crooked toes, bunions, ingrown toenails, fungal toenail infections, hallux limitus and rigidus, plantar fasciosis, sesamoiditis, and neuromas are all possible foot-related health problems associated with misaligned toes. Shin splints, posterior tibial tendinitis, and knee osteoarthritis are other lower extremity health problems that may, in large part, be caused by misaligned toes.
In our Portland, Oregon-based sports podiatry clinic, we invented a toe-spacing product, called Correct Toes, to address many of the toe, foot, and lower extremity ailments that we see on a daily basis. Correct Toes help re-approximate your misaligned toes to their normal anatomical position and provides both immediate and long-term relief from your symptoms. Correct Toes can be worn inside shoes that possess a sufficiently wide toe box, or they can be worn to bed, as a night splint. Note that when we say “sufficiently wide toe box,” we mean the shoe must be wide at the ends of the toes, not just at the ball. Such a shoe is not the shape that most of us are accustomed to seeing, as almost all footwear has a toe box that tapers.
Other conservative care methods for misaligned toes include rest, specific stretches, taping procedures, and, most importantly, footwear changes. Visit your podiatrist or another qualified healthcare provider to better understand the role of conservative treatment techniques in resolving your misaligned toe problems. Your doctor can counsel you on the risks, benefits, and limitations of these therapies.
Wishing you all strong and naturally healthy feet!