If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with knee osteoarthritis (the wear-and-tear form of arthritis), it’s important to find a supportive pair of shoes.
Marked by progressive damage to cartilage and other joint tissues, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. People who have osteoarthritis in the knee may feel a “scraping” sensation when they move the joint and have trouble walking or climbing stairs, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Some shoes affect knee osteoarthritis symptoms, pain, and progression more than others. Consider these expert recommendations when choosing your footwear.
The Worst Shoes for Knee Osteoarthritis
- Clogs “Clogs may not be an optimal footwear choice for people with osteoarthritis because they place high loads on the knee,” says Najia Shakoor, MD, a rheumatologist and a professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Joint load refers to the force put on a weight-bearing or load-bearing joint during activity, she says. “You want to decrease the load on the knee, not increase it.”
- Pumps, Stilettos, and Other High-Heeled Shoes “In general, heels are a no-no if you have knee osteoarthritis,” Dr. Shakoor says. These types of shoes may even increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis, according to a study. Researchers analyzed the walking patterns of 14 women and found that walking in high heels puts the knees under additional strain, which can set the stage for knee osteoarthritis. “Heels will increase load on the knee,” Shakoor says. “Even a wedge that’s built for comfort can increase load.” Her advice for women with osteoarthritis who won’t give up their heels? Try to wear them only on special occasions, not on a daily basis. “Damage to the knee is cumulative,” she says.
- Supportive Sneakers Believe it or not, a very supportive shoe may not be the best way to avoid knee osteoarthritis symptoms. “You don’t want too much arch support,” Shakoor says. “You need to pronate, and too much arch support prevents this.” Pronation is the inward movement of the foot as it rolls; the motion distributes the force of impact so no single joint is overtaxed.
The Best Shoes for Knee Osteoarthritis
- Soft, Flexible Sneakers Look for soft, flat, flexible sneakers or walking shoes designed to mimic the biomechanics of walking barefoot. This was the main finding from a study led by Shakoor and a team of researchers. In the study, 16 people who had knee osteoarthritis wore specially made mobility shoes, which mimicked walking barefoot, for six hours a day, six days a week. Participants changed how they walked, which improved load on the knee, even when the mobility shoes were no longer worn, the researchers found.
- Ballet Flats “These shoes are a pretty good choice for [knee] osteoarthritis,” Shakoor says. “They are flexible and don’t have a heel.”
- Soft, Flexible Dress Shoes If you have knee osteoarthritis, “look for dress shoes that are flexible and soft that will expand and not constrict the foot and cause foot pain or other problems,” Shakoor says. Just be sure to steer clear of stiff dress shoes, she says.
- Flip-Flops These are good for knee osteoarthritis, but there’s a caveat: “Mechanically, they’re not bad, but they can lead to falls,” Shakoor says. This is especially true for older people with knee osteoarthritis.
Note that these shoe options are likely best for people with the most most common type of knee osteoarthritis, which affects the medial ligament — although they may also help with other types of knee osteoarthritis. Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure which type you have, and ask them for their overall recommendations on the best shoe for you.
How to Shop for Shoes
In general, Shakoor says, the main qualities to look for in a shoe if you have knee osteoarthritis include:
- Minimalistic (think: barefoot)
- Minimal arch support
“Comfort is important too, so if a shoe feels uncomfortable in the store, it’s not a good choice,” says Elena Katzap, DO, a rheumatologist with Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York.
There may be a role for custom orthotics, too. Your best bet, Dr. Katzap says, is to get evaluated by an occupational therapist or physical therapist. From there, you can choose the best shoe style to fit your needs.