If you find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to spread your toes and bring them together again, it means that the muscles that are responsible for these actions (toe abduction and adduction in technical terms) have atrophied.
When movement is restricted, muscles weaken and waste away and can no longer pump blood round the body. Poor circulation can take the form of cold feet, spider, varicose veins, leg pain, joint pain, congestion, skin irritation and itching, as well as restless legs and muscle cramps.
When muscles are atrophied, they can no longer drain waste-carrying lymph. This lymphatic pumping is essential to the health of tissues. Without it, pooling interstitial fluid occurs, with symptoms such as swelling in the lower limb.
When muscles weaken, others have to work twice as hard to compensate and end up getting fatigued, tense and painful.
Try moving your hand with your fingers tightly together.
When your fingers are not allowed to spread, you cannot do all the movements that your hand is capable of. The same goes for the feet.
When feet lose their mobility, it becomes difficult to cope with uneven terrain. The forefoot can no longer mold itself round humps and bumps. The ankle will start losing stability to compensate for the lack of mobility of the feet, to stop you from falling. Ligaments will be put to the test and risk spraining under the pressure.
Passively spreading the toes (abduction) with toe socks or toe spreaders or simply your other hand is a simple and effective step towards active abduction (when you can spread your toes at will).
This action will prevent or help correct hallux valgus - when the big toe migrates towards the other four toes and there is a bony deformation (bunion) which can be painful due to repetitive rubbing against the inside of the shoe.
And that's not all!
Because of the migration of the big toe, the arch starts collapsing and the knee will turn in, instead of pointing straight forward.
When muscles in the feet are weak, the hip muscles also weaken. Hip muscles work together with feet muscles. Issues such as stiff and painful joints and balance issues are not far behind, with an increased risk of fall and injury.
What I see also is that toes are used to push off when walking (hammer toes), instead of the ball of the foot.
Most shoes prevent our toes from moving, particularly tight shoes, shoes with a toe box not wide enough to allow your toes to spread, stiff shoes or shoes with a toe spring which keeps toes in permanent extension, shortening the small muscles on top of your foot.
A lot of foot issues seem to affect older people. They actually start very early on, from the moment we imprison our feet into ill-fitting shoes, which could be as young as six with the first school shoes or even earlier.
It's always best to make changes that are small and to progress gradually, regressing even sometimes as needed, because of the tissues having adapted to their shoe containers. Any drastic change would be stressful for the tissues and may cause more problems than it is fixing.
- Spend a bit more time without shoes on, wiggle your toes, feeling the air through your toes.
- Start spreading your toes gently apart at every opportunity, using your brain power or a device just as toe alignment socks, toe spreaders or your opposite hand. A massage therapist can do this for you. When you first use toe spreaders, keep them on for just a few minutes, and don't push them in all the way. My toes on my right foot cramped when I first started but they soon adapt if you increase the time gradually over a number of weeks. If you feel any discomfort, take them off and try again in a day or two.
- Try and lift all your toes, keeping the ball of your foot down, then one toe at a time.
For more guidance, make an appointment with your local restorative exercise specialist.