How Does Arthritis Affect Walking And Shoe Choices for Seniors?

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Learn how the different forms of arthritis affect your walking mobility with tips for dealing with the pain - including how to choose proper footwear.

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What kind of shoes should people with arthritis wear

Many seniors find themselves compensating for arthritic pain by changing their walking patterns in unhelpful ways, compromising their balance and significantly increasing their risk for falls.

This article discusses how arthritis affects walking mobility, your shoe choice, and what types of shoes are best for seniors with arthritic feet.

I’ll also discuss going barefoot versus wearing footwear with arthritis and tips for helping decrease walking-related arthritic pain. 

So keep on reading to learn more – or – we have video and audio-only options for you too!

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How is Walking Mobility Affected by Arthritis?

Arthritis is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that negatively impact the body’s joints. The most frequently encountered form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which causes the cartilage between the joints to break down and wear away slowly.

In severe cases, the cartilage is completely absent, and the joints rub together bone-on-bone, causing excruciating pain with mobility and reducing the range of motion significantly.

Another form of arthritis is called rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks and breaks down its own joints.

shoes should people with arthritis wear any joint
Arthritis can significantly impact an individual’s walking mobility.

Arthritis can impact just about any joint of the body, but common areas when it pertains to walking include:

  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Feet
  • Ankles
  • Spine

Arthritis can significantly change someone’s walking mobility for two primary reasons:

  • Compensation to avoid pain
  • Limited joint mobility physically changes posture and walking patterns

Case Studies

Let’s take a look at two different scenarios (and this is very much an oversimplification in both cases for educational purposes).

Robert has osteoarthritis and has been compensating for the pain. In contrast, Shelly has rheumatoid arthritis and has had physical changes that manipulate her walking mobility.

Robert is a 71-year-old man with osteoarthritis in his left knee and left hip.

For the past few years, walking on his left leg has become painful. To avoid pain, he’s developed a limp, placing more body weight on the right side rather than the left.

Unfortunately, this has compromised his balance and contributed to overuse pain on the right side. 

Shelly is 65 years old and has been living with rheumatoid arthritis for several years. The most affected joints include her hips, knees, ankles, spin, and feet.

Somedays, it feels excruciating for her to walk. On other days, she can manage with her medication and regular physical therapy.

Over the years, her joints have become extremely delicate and have lost a significant amount of range. She walks with a hunched posture and has to take extremely slow steps.

She has already experienced several falls in the last two years. 

Whatever the case, arthritis can change typical walking patterns and mobility, but not in a good way. This means that seniors with arthritis could increase their risk of losing balance and falling.

How Does Arthritis Affect Your Shoe Choice?

Arthritis will impact your shoe selection based on the joints affected. Here are a few examples of how your choices may be curbed:

  • Arthritis in the hands: shoes may have to exclude problematic shoelaces or shoes that are difficult to pull over the toe and heel.
  • Arthritis in the back and hips: many seniors opt for slip-on shoes to avoid unnecessary bending at the hips.
  • Arthritis of the knees: seniors may avoid tight-wearing shoes or laced shoes because bending those knees to don shoes or stomping the shoes on is just too painful.
  • Arthritis of the feet: seniors may consider changing the very fabric and structure of their shoes to accommodate their walking mobility.
shoes should people with arthritis wear types
Orthopedic shoes may be helpful in severe stages of arthritis.

What Types of Shoes are Best for Seniors with Arthritic Feet?

Your feet are made of dozens of tiny little bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles that work together to mobilize the body.

If any one of those joints is impacted by arthritis, it can drastically change how you walk and change how well you tolerate pressure distribution through the foot.

The type of shoe you choose to wear depends on how arthritis uniquely affects your foot. If you can’t tolerate increased pressure on the balls of your feet, try out a wider shoe with increased width and arch support.

If arthritis is creating spur formations on the top of your foot, find a shoe that’s not too tight over the top of the foot that provides sufficient arch support.

In severe stages of arthritis, an orthopedic shoe may be necessary to combat potential lacerations and ulcers from disruptive bone spurs or loosened ligaments (often seen in rheumatoid arthritis).

Is it Better to go Barefoot or Wear Shoes with Arthritis?

This highly depends on seniors’ comfort levels and any professional recommendations from relevant physicians.

However, here are some basic pros and cons of walking barefoot with arthritis:

Walking Barefoot with Arthritis

Pros:

  • Increased sensation with the ground, potentially increasing postural stability.
  • No hassle in putting on shoes, especially if arthritis affects multiple joints throughout your body.

Cons:

  • It can be excruciating, especially if the pressure distribution through the balls of your feet is uncomfortable or lack of arch support contributes to pain.
  • Nothing is protecting your feet from debris, making your feet susceptible to wounds on top of the pain from arthritis.
  • There’s no shock absorption through the heels if you’re walking around on hard surfaces, contributing to knee, hip, and back pain. 

In many cases, investing in a good shoe may be a lifesaver when living with arthritic foot pain. It may improve your overall balance and walking mobility.

Tips for Helping Walking-Related Arthritic Pain

If you are living with arthritis and it’s negatively impacting your walking mobility, here are a few ways to relieve some of the pain:

  • Talk to your physician. They can refer you to an orthopedic specialist, a podiatrist, a physical therapist, or a clinician you feel comfortable advising you about your walking mobility and how arthritis uniquely changes your daily routine.
  • Invest in a shoe that you love. Of course, comfort is essential too! Not all shoes are created equal. There isn’t just one shoe that solves all arthritic problems. Study your form of arthritis and what joints it impacts, and select a shoe that will work for you and your specific walking mobility pattern.
  • Now that you have an excellent walking shoe, don’t expect to walk 5 miles in one day, especially if you weren’t walking at all before. Like any good physical exercise, work up to it. Get some good, healthy stretches in first. Be kind to your joints.
  • Give your joints some love with a hot bath or shower. Apply ice and heat as needed or AS MUCH AS YOU WANT. It’s your body, your pain, and your health.
  • Take regular inflammatory medications as prescribed by your doctor. A good walking shoe is not a cure-all for arthritis; symptoms will still come and go. 
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Summary and Final Recommendations

Arthritis can dramatically change seniors’ walking mobility patterns based on pain and joint range restrictions. This can contribute to issues with balance and potentially lead to falls and injuries.

Be nice to your body and invest in walking shoes that fit your needs and help alleviate arthritic symptoms. Talk to your physician about how arthritis affects your body.

Ask for recommendations for footwear to improve your overall balance and quality of life. 

References:

Meredith Chandler, OTR/L

Registered/Licensed Occupational Therapist

Meredith has worked as an occupational therapist for 9 years and as a content writer for 6 years. She primarily works with the geriatric population, focusing on their rehabilitative needs and instructing caregivers and family members for home care. Her specialties include ADL training, neurological re-education, functional mobility training, adaptive equipment education, and wheelchair assessment and mobility training. She is a painter, a musician, and a mother of 4 who loves spending time with her family,

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