Tight ties, killer heels: How your clothes can impact your health

Published February 21, 2012

| The Wall Street Journal

Baila Steinman first noticed the numbness in her leg on a trip to Israel in December. "From the knee to the pelvis, it was numb to the point of being painful," recalled the 52-year-old occupational therapist.

Back home in Brooklyn, a neurologist had her balance on her toes, walk backward on her heels and push back when he put pressure on her legs. Then he asked, "Do you wear tight clothes? Control-top pantyhose? Tight belts?" When she nodded yes, the doctor, Irving Friedman, exclaimed "That's it!"

The culprit: the cinch belts Steinman loves to wear. Friedman said they can compress a major nerve, the lateral, femoral cutaneous nerve, that runs from the abdomen to the outer thigh. He said he frequently sees the condition—called meralgia paresthetica—in policemen who carry guns on their hips and ballet dancers who wear tight tutus. "Anything that puts pressure on that nerve can cause it," he said. "It's very, very common."

Steinman still wears the belts she loves, just not buckled quite so tight. "I told my friends about this and they cracked up," she said. "I said, 'I'm just letting you girls know, this can happen to you.' "

Apparel and accessories that are too tight, too loose, too heavy, too high or too floppy can all create health issues. Wearers sometimes have no idea that the culprit is their clothes. Of course, modern sartorial trends aren't nearly as punishing as Chinese foot binding or Victorian-era corsets, which could crush women's ribs and displace internal organs.

Here's a look at perhaps what not to wear:

Tight jeans: Squeezing into matchstick jeans with cheese-stick legs cannot only cause nerve compression, it can interfere with digestion, as the Archives of Internal Medicine noted in 1993.

Dr. Octavio Bessa, an internist from Stamford, Conn., wrote that he was seeing 20 to 25 patients a year, usually middle-aged or older men, suffering from abdominal discomfort, distention, heartburn and belching a few hours after eating. "The diagnosis can be made easily in the office by comparing the size of the trousers with the abdominal girth. There is usually a discrepancy of 7.5 centimeters or more," Bessa wrote, coining the term "tight pants syndrome."

Since then, jean styles have gotten even skinnier and have also been blamed for lower back pain, yeast infections in women and a rare condition called lipoatrophia semicircularis, in which horizontal lesions appear around the thighs.

Body shapers: Worn too tight or too long, Spanx and other body-tamers can cause both nerve compression and digestive issues—not to mention painful welts where fabric ends and flesh begins. (They're really made for smoothing, not squeezing the wearer down a size.)

Shapers that compress the upper abdomen can also prevent the lungs from fully inflating, reducing oxygen intake, which can lead to lightheadedness. Stomach-flattening "compression wear" for men runs the same risk—and won't really train those abs to stay in place, no matter what the advertising says.

Shirts and ties: Get headaches, blurred vision or tingling around the ears—particularly at the office? Tight shirt collars and neckties can reduce circulation to the brain and increase intraocular pressure, a risk factor for glaucoma, experts warn. Tight ties can also decrease range of motion in the neck and increase muscle tension in the back and shoulders, according to a study of South Korean office workers in the journal Work last year.

Many men need to loosen up: 67 percent buy shirts that are smaller than their necks, according to a 1993 study at Cornell University.

And since they tend not to be cleaned as often as other clothing items, neckties can be transmit infection. Some hospitals have sought to ban doctors from wearing them.

Undergarments: Lingerie experts say 75 percent of women wear the wrong size bra. A bra that is too big gives no support, which can cause breast pain and back strain. One that is too tight could presumably cut into the flesh.

Boxers or briefs? Fertility experts advise men who want to become fathers not to spend long periods in tight bike shorts that can raise the temperature of the testes, reducing sperm production.

Fabric and detergent: Allergies to specific fibers are relatively rare, although they occur more often with synthetics and blends than all wool, cotton or silk, according to Apra Sood, a contact dermatitis expert at the Cleveland Clinic. More often, people who develop rashes and other irritations from clothes are reacting to dyes, fabric softeners and finishers that can include formaldehyde. "Washing new clothes a couple of times before wearing can reduce that," Sood said.

Shoes: Heels higher than two inches have been linked to bunions, hammer toes, stress fractures and ankle sprains. Other ailments include "pump bumps" (bony protrusions on the back of heels), Morton's neuroma (an injury to the nerve between the toes) and Freiberg infraction (in which some foot bones die due to lack of circulation.) After years of wearing high heels, some fashionistas find that their Achilles tendons shorten, making flat shoes uncomfortable.

And flats can cause problems too, especially those with thin, unsupportive soles. In fact, any shoes without arch support can lead to plantar fasciitis, an inflammation in the band of tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot.

Flip-flops are even worse, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association. Researchers at Auburn University videotaped 39 volunteers and noticed they had to clench their toes to keep them on, leading to foot fatigue, sore calf muscles and an altered gait, which could cause long-term ankle and hip problems.

Think winter footwear is safer? Those popular fleece-lined, flat-soled boots have some of the same issues. Plus, the lining can be a breeding ground for athlete's foot and nail fungus. "Yes, they absorb moisture, but the moisture has nowhere to go," said Jeffrey Benabio, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, Calif. He recommends wearing fleece boots only outdoors, with socks, for short periods, and letting them dry out in between.

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