tampabay.com

Before we make it the state shoe, your feet okay?

Let's face it: Flip-flops aren't going away. But the minimalist foot wear is cause for concern, podiatrists say.

By LISA GREENE
Published July 1, 2006


They beckon, in all their ice-cream colors and rubbery glory, promising breezes will skim your toes even in the most tropical sun.

Yes, you sigh as you scoot your toes into your flip-flops, they are the essence of Florida.

Do not be fooled.

They may whisper ease and comfort. They may hint that sliding them on brings you two steps closer to lounging by the pool in a small swimsuit with a large margarita.

But under those cute little thongs lurk hidden dangers. Alas, flip-flops are bad for your feet.

"Many people, especially in Florida, wear flip-flops in the summer as replacement for their normal shoe gear," said Cary Zinkin, a Deerfield Beach podiatrist who is a spokesman for the American Podiatric Medical Association. "That's where we find the problems."

No, they won't kill you. But flip-flop overuse can give you tendonitis, arch pain and even sprained ankles, podiatrists say.

This wasn't always so. Just a few years ago, people were more sensible. Flip-flops stayed by the beach or the pool, and podiatrists could confine themselves to bemoaning the perils of the stiletto heel.

But times, and fashions, change. Flip-flops fled beaches and walked into malls, across downtowns, and even through the White House, where they incited a fashion flap last year by showing up on the feet of some members of Northwestern University's championship lacrosse team.

In the Tampa Bay area, the Hillsborough County School Board acknowledged the victory of casual wear in May, when it voted to let middle and high school students wear flip-flops to school.

Walk through International Plaza in Tampa, and flip-flops stride everywhere. Thonged sandals riot in pink and green, or shuffle along more modestly in soft, buttery suede. Black flip-flops stretch from basic rubber to glam sequins. When you finish shopping at Gucci or Tiffany & Co., you can run by the South Beach Flip Flop stand and pick up a new pair.

The New York Times devoted an entire story this week to the flip-flop fad, informing readers that Los Angeles' hippest flips, Havaianas, cost $50 if you get the kind with rhinestones.

All this frivolity comes with a price.

"We're probably seeing 10 people a week with flip-flop issues," said Sarasota podiatrist Robert Frimmel, past president of the Florida Podiatric Medical Association.

People wear them for too long, and flip-flops have no support. They don't absorb shock. They're unstable, making it easier to turn an ankle.

"Yes, it is Florida, but you can't go walking Disney World in flip-flops and expect your feet to feel good at the end of the day," Frimmel said.

Frimmel sees shin splints and arch pain, heel pain and blisters.

At Florida Orthopaedic Institute in Tampa, Dr. Scott Welsh, an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine, looks for evidence of flip-flop abuse.

"I can tell based on the tan marks," he said.

Welsh says he's seeing more patients with certain types of foot pain, such as plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of the foot.

Other problems can include stress fractures and cracks in the heel because the shoes don't absorb shock. Worse, Welsh said, the cracks can get infected.

For all the shoes' seductive sponginess, they provide little support. So they can stress other joints, causing tendonitis in the ankle, pain in the knees and back. And, by definition, flip-flops don't protect the feet.

Crocs, Chaco, Dansko and Rockport all sell summer shoes that offer more support, say podiatrists who have studied the shoes.

Jupiter resident Lance Horton, 54, learned the dangers firsthand - or foot. Before one of last year's hurricanes, he was moving his barbecue grill off the porch when he dropped it on his toe.

"It was a gusher, too," he said in Tampa this week, having recovered enough from his eight stitches to go shopping at International Plaza. "My wife gave me a fit: 'I can't believe you wore your flip-flops!' "

Such hazards have the national podiatric group concerned enough that last month it issued a news release slamming flip-flops' "flimsy support and protection."

They know you may not listen.

"There was one survey done that 33 percent of women say that comfort is more important than fashion in choosing shoes," Zinkin said. "I'm just looking at that, saying, 'What happened to the other 67 percent?' "

The dissenting majority includes 19-year-old Denver resident Alizabeth Bennett, who owns at least 11 pairs.

"Maybe," she said. "That's being safe."

She brought five pairs to Tampa Bay for her vacation this week. But she wears them at home, too.

"All the time, every day," she said. "In the snow."

Tampa resident Andrea Sistrunk, 24, wore her dress flip-flops to International Plaza: black, with beads.

"It's easier - slip them on, go wherever," she said. "It's comfortable. Squishy and soft."

Not every foot doctor is worried.

"The average person, with the average foot type, I don't know that it's going to cause any significant foot problems," said podiatrist Josh Bernard, an assistant surgery professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

Neither is Horton. He loves his flip-flops.

"They're the next-best thing to barefoot," he proclaimed, and he even would wear them again for hazardous hurricane evacuation. People worry too much, he said.

"If that's the biggest risk we take in life ..."

He didn't finish the sentence, but he didn't need to.

Because he was wearing his flip-flops.