Do your feet hurt? Try Toe Spacers

YesYou may have learned from personal experience that the only job of toe spacers is to keep your nails from getting stained after the pedicure. (*Eyes aside my raised baby toe*.) But these days, fitfluencers, exercise enthusiasts, and CrossFit Games athletes are using toe spacers to enhance their pre-rehab, rehabilitation, and their performance.

Wondering how on earth giving your toes a break could help you athletically? We called Emily Splichal, DPM, functional podiatrist and CEO of recovery brand Naboso, and Stephanie Carter Kelley, PhD, certified orthopedic physical therapy specialist and Hatha yoga instructor. They explain the noise behind the tootsie trend and share what you need to know to start your own toe-spacing routine.

What are toe spacers?

Also known as toe spreaders, these tools to see almost identical to the cheap kind that the pedicure weaves between your toes to paint. And indeed, some are made of the same spongy polystyrene material you see at the salon. But more often than not, these toe spreaders are made of stretchy silicone.

Simply put, they are designed to repair the damage that modern shoes inflict on our feet. Naturally, our toes are meant to spread freely and widely, says Dr. Splichal. To prove how mobile our toes are supposed to be, take a look at some baby feet. Besides being cute, these little toes are super flexible!

Unfortunately, our feet lose this flexibility after spending hours and hours (!) in fitted shoes. “Most flats, loafers, and athletic shoes are literally designed to be narrower than the shape of the human foot,” says Dr. Kelley. “So even people with narrow feet squeeze themselves into shoes that are too narrow in the toe area.”

Over time, this restriction can cause damage to your feet, she says. “Muscles and joints become so tense, stiff and immobile that your feet can’t function optimally,” she says. “And that can lead to pain, not just in the feet, but also in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back.”

What are the benefits?

By separating your toes more than usual, toe spacers gently stretch all of the tiny muscles that surround and support the toes, says Dr. Splichal. When worn regularly, they can help bring your feet and toes back to their natural alignment.

And when your foot regains its natural alignment? Any pain caused by misalignment and weakness in joints and muscles may begin to subside. “Stretching the small muscles and ligaments around the toes and forefoot can be especially beneficial for conditions like hammertoes and neuromas,” says Dr. Splichal. People with bunions may also notice relief from toe spacers, she adds.

Beyond rehabilitation and preparation for foot and toe injuries, Dr. Kelley says toe spacers can also help people reach their athletic potential. “When your toes can move the way they’re designed to naturally, you’re physically able to lift your arch,” she explains. “And when the arch of the foot lifts the right amount and at the right time, the foot is able to transmit forces to the rest of the leg.” The result? More power during any type of sport that requires running, walking or jumping. Hello PR!

Exactly how to start using toe spacers

“Toe spacers can benefit everyone,” says Dr. Splichal. After all, unless you’re a surf instructor or a nomadic beach girl who loves the sand between your toes, you probably spend the majority of your day wearing casts (er, sneakers or heels).

First order of operations: find a set. A pair of brands like Jeobest Mind Bodhi or The Toe Spacer won’t cost you more than $12. “But you don’t need any special equipment,” says Dr. Kelley. “You can even just take a sock and weave it in and out of your toes.” Note.

How should you start using toe spacers? Slowly. Start with just 5 to 20 minutes a day, suggests Dr. Splichal. Longer than that can sometimes be irritating to the toes. So set a timer and “wear them while you’re watching TV, sitting at your desk, or even at night to provide a low-load stretch,” suggests Dr. Kelley.

As your toes adjust to feel and handling, you can gradually increase daily wear. Assuming there is room in the toe box of your shoes, Dr. Splichal actually recommends wearing them in your shoes at work or while working out. (Note: if you’re really serious about doing this, you may need to order a pair of wide trainers. Reebok, Brooks, and New Balance are all known to be wider).

Remember that pain is the body’s way of signaling that something is wrong, so if you start to feel any discomfort, take it out. This is especially important if you have hammer toes, bunions, or any other underlying foot condition.

Finally, in case you need to be told to: wash your toe spacers regularly. Failing to clean them can lead to a buildup of odors and bacteria, says Dr. Splichal. ick. If your specific set has cleaning instructions, follow them. But soap and warm water will usually do the trick.

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About Marie A. Gingrich

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