Flip flops on display at shop
Credit: m01229 on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Flip-flops have been a summer staple that is a type of footwear that dates back literally thousands of years - it is said ancient Egyptians wore them in 4000 BC. According to StyleList, the British Museum, located in London, houses the oldest known pair of them, dating back to 1500 B.C. Fast-forward a few millennium and every summer flip-flops are seen sported by people of all ages.

In earlier societies this style of shoes were made of materials such as papyrus, palm leaves, rawhide, wood , rice straw and other natural materials. Today flip-flops are made very differently, with the most common material used being rubber.  According to a 2012 report in the New York Times , it is believed modern versions made of rubber probably originated in Japan. 2

In recent years flip-flops very focused in terms of style and design, but unfortunately going with what's fashionable can sometimes create other problems. Some studies conducted over the last few years have indicated flip-flops can hurt your legs and cause problems with your muscles. Other types of pains can emerge as well.

Ways Flip Flops Can Cause Pain

According to experts, wearing flip-flops can hurt you in ways you might not connect to wearing this type of footwear. After all, they slide on so easily and are often considered to be a comfortable style. However, experts say people who wear them too often can end up experiencing symptoms such as:

  • Leg pain
  • Hip pain
  • Back pain
  • Knee pain
  • Calf strains
  • Muscle problems
  • Shin splints

The reason for these ailments is because many styles of flip-flops do not provide any shock absorption, provide arch/heel support or give any level of stability. All of which cause other parts of your body to work harder when you walk. 

In addition to pain, Bay State Physical Therapy, a Massachusetts-based physical therapy company, indicates many falls can also be attributed to wearing flip-flops. 3 (Usually from running or jumping). These falls often lead to sprains, stubbed or broken toes, bruises, or other fall-related injuries.  

Twisted Ankle
Credit: OakleyOriginals on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

While some flip-flop makers have been adding these elements to their designs, many types do not. In July 2014, Heather Moore, PT, DPT, CKTP, said she becomes "horribly unpopular" with her athlete patients as summer arrives because she tells them to put the flip-flops back into their closets. 4

Studies Look at Flip-Flop Wear

It seems how flip-flops affect your legs is all in the design. In 2010, Justin Shroyer, an assistant professor of Kinesiology at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, said:

"The less flip in your flop, the better it is for your feet and legs."  

In the 2010 USA Today reported Shroyer spent time studying more than 100 people wearing their flip-flops and observed how the foot apparel affected the legs and feet of those wearing this type of shoe style.  On June 2, 2010 Shroyer reported his findings at the American College of Sport Medicine's annual meeting. 5

In his research Shroyer found the tibialis anterior muscles (located on the front of the shins) work harder when a person wears flip-flops as opposed to going barefoot. He also found they can cause pain in lower legs. Shroyer, as a grad student, also assisted Dr. Wendi Weimer of the Sport Biomechanics Laboratory at Auburn University,  during a similar study back in 2008.

In 2010 Dr. Mark Baxter, a podiatrist in Kingsport, Tenn. agreed that flip-flops can cause hurt to your legs. He stated:

"The biggest problem with flip flops and sandals is people who have heel pain". Often wrongly assumed to be a heel spur or stone bruise, the condition is often really plantar fasciitis." 6

According to Baxter, young children are probably OK with wearing flip-flops, but once kids hit the "tween" age or older, it is time to look for footwear that is more sturdy because as children grow, their bodies become heavier, increasing the risk that their legs can be hurt. Baxter likens soft flip-flops to walking on the beach with sand which can cause fatigue if done for extended periods.

Credit: Lindsey Turner (theogeo on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Parents might have a hard time convincing their older children wearing these shoes, often designed to be fashionable, are not good for their legs and feet.

In 2012, Prevention reported it tested flip-flops and found its testers were "up to 2.5 times less stable in flip-flops than sneakers." 7 Other findings  noted indicated people were taking shorter steps and/or tiring more easily when wearing the popular summer footwear. Prevention reported this often led to people being more apt to hop in a car or cab, resulting in less walking, which means less healthy exercise has a tendency to occur.

How to Choose a Good Pair of Flip-Flops

When selecting a pair of flip-flops, experts recommend wearers should avoid overly soft type and look for footwear that is more firm, especially in the sole. A good sturdy pair should only bend minimally.  Experts say when choosing a good pair of summer footwear, to look for types that have the American Podiatric Medical Association's seal of acceptance.  Chaco is one brand.

In the summer flip-flops are a favorite accessory, and it is recommended that if flip-flops are going to be worn, the pair should have a heel cup and offer some arch support. The idea is to find a pair of flip-flops that wears like a natural foot and should fit snugly.  Footwear purchased in drug, variety or dollar type stores likely do not have the correct level of support. Another option is to purchase a sport sandal that offers more support.

Experts advise only wearing flip-flops to the beach, showers or other types of short-term wear that does not involve too much walking.  Studies on the issue seem to agree that flip-flops, when worn for extended periods of time, can cause damage or pain to various portions of the legs. Short periods of time wearing them seems to be acceptable and not result in any significant ailments or damage.

Like with most things in life, when wearing your flip-flops, it is probably a good idea to practice moderation.

Chaco Women's Updraft 2 Genweb-W Sandal,Vertical,10 M US
Amazon Price: $110.00 $65.00 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 15, 2016)
Different sizes and styles available on Amazon. For men and kids too.
Flip flops on the beach
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Wearing a pair of flip-flops at the beach seems to be an acceptable time to wear them, say experts. What you want to avoid is wearing them in place of more supporting types of shoes.