The ultimate guide to choosing nursing shoes

Nursing shoes

As a nurse, you are likely on your feet for most of the day. Without the proper footwear, long days can wreak havoc on the feet, knees and hips. The bottom line – bad shoes can be your worst enemy.

“We often see nurses for a variety of foot issues including bunions, hammertoe, foot and ankle arthritis and plantar fasciitis,” says Alexander Sawatzke, MD, orthopaedic surgeon specializing in foot problems. “That’s where a proper fitting shoe comes into play. Over the long run, studies show that a good shoe that accommodates existing foot problems or imbalances can be very important in preventing foot issues, helping existing foot issues get better and preventing the need for potential surgery.”

Derek McCroy, BSN, RN, who has worked at Nebraska Medicine both as a patient care technician and registered nurse for more than 10 years, speaks from experience. “A good nursing shoe will have many benefits for your career. When I first started in health care I soon figured out that I needed to take care of my feet. My feet hurt at the end of the day, even my legs ached. A lot of nurses count their steps. And let me tell you, their numbers are astonishing. Your feet and legs will get tired and your knees will hurt if you do not take care of them. A good nursing shoe will help with your joints. If your feet are comfortable, your knees will be too.” 

When looking for a shoe that is going to provide you the most comfort and support, Dr. Sawatzke and McCroy recommend these factors as key to helping you and your feet get through the day in the best shape possible.

The right fit
“Your shoe should fit snug but not too tight or too loose,” notes Dr. Sawatzke. “Extra space in the toe area or heel can result in slipping, whereas pinching in the heel area or toe can result in rubbing and blisters.” 

Non-slip sole
Shoes that will accommodate quick turns and movements is an important consideration for nurses who are on their feet all day. Look for shoes with rubberized soles as well as great tread patters, recommends Dr. Sawatzke. 

Shock absorption
“The sole is the heart of the shoe,” adds McCroy. “If the sole isn’t supportive and functional, your feet will not last a 12-hour shift.”

A shoe with a thick sole and padding will provide shock absorption and can help reduce knee, ankle and hip pain.

Wide toe box
Make sure the toe box is wide enough so that it doesn’t push against the toes. This is especially important for people who have existing issues like bunions and hammertoe, explains Dr. Sawatzke. Hoka shoes are known for their wider shoe boxes, support and stability. A stretchy or mesh fabric will also place reduced pressure on bunions and hammertoes. 

Stiff sole
For people with great toe arthritis or arthritis pain on top of the foot, a stiffer sole that doesn’t twist will provide better support and help reduce pain, Dr. Sawatzke says. Look for a stiffer sole, such as a Vibram sole, which also provides good traction and durability. Dansko and Merrill are two shoe brands that typically offer stiffer soles.

Arch support or padded instep
Arch support or a padded instep is especially important if you have flat feet or any existing problems like plantar fasciitis. The degree of arch support you need depends on the height of your arches, explains Dr. Sawatzke. “If you use an insert, it is important to find one that fits the shape of your foot,” he says. “Flat feet can generally benefit from greater arch support where someone with high arches might benefit more from a first ray cutout orthotic, which helps put the foot in a more neutral position to dissipate the shock of heel impact. I would not spend a lot of money on custom orthotics. The most important factor in treating plantar fasciitis is increasing flexibility in the calf muscle by stretching regularly. Shoes like Hoka, Dansko, Merrill and Vibram sole shoes typically provide more arch support.”

Rocker bottom
Individuals who suffer from ankle arthritis should consider shoes with rocker bottom soles. This type of shoe has a thicker than normal sole with a rounded heel and toe area (toe and heel areas curve up) to reduce pressure in the center of the foot area by helping you roll through your gait, Dr. Sawatzke explains. Some Sketchers provide this type of shoe structure.

Easy to clean
You never know what you are going to walk into – a spilled bedside water, vomit or other body fluids, notes McCroy, so something that can be easily wiped down like leather or synthetic leather is important. 

“I will never forget when one of my friends that worked on a medical – surgical inpatient floor with me came out of a room looking very defeated,” recalls McCroy. “She had worn her new Nike mesh-covered tennis shoes for the first time. They were bright, colorful and looked great! I said, ‘Anna, what’s wrong?’ and she responded, ‘Oh my gosh, do you have another pair of shoes? I just got peed on and it soaked through the mesh in my new shoes and even down to my socks.’”

A popular easy to clean choice is the Crocs shoe, which are also odor resistant and have a wide toe box, says Dr. Sawatzke. However, they do not have a stiff sole, and therefore, are not a good choice for people with arthritis of the foot.

In addition to choosing the right shoes, a little tender loving care to your feet can also go a long way in helping prevent the development of foot and ankle problems. Consider these tips.

Change your shoes after noticeable wear and tear
Occasionally check the sole of the shoe and look for wear on the sides of the shoe and heel area to ensure you’re still getting the support and stability you need. Also, if you start to notice an imprint of your foot inside the shoe, it’s time to change them out. 

Stretch and ice
“One of the best things you can on a daily basis to help prevent problems like plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis, is to stretch your calves before and after a long day,” says Dr. Sawatzke. Place your foot on a step with your heel hanging off. Push your heel down and keep your knee straight for a long even stretch. Night splints may also help chronic plantar fasciitis which helps stretch the calves throughout the night while you sleep. Icing can be helpful for arthritic feet. If you have Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis or other foot pain that continues after four to six weeks of regular stretching and icing, consider seeing your doctor for medical advice, Dr. Sawatzke advises.

Give them a break
“Don’t forget to take care of yourself,” stresses McCroy. “I will be the first to admit, there were days when I didn’t go to the bathroom until 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, let alone sit down for more than five minutes. Don’t be shy. If your feet and legs are aching and you feel yourself getting tired, ask if someone can cover your assignment for five to 10 minutes so you can sit down and take a break, stretch your legs, go to the breakroom and take off your shoes for a few minutes. Whatever you need to do, do it. Your feet will thank you!” 

Consider compression socks
“I wear compression socks with a comfortable shoe and this does wonders for me,” says McCroy. “I was getting to a point where my legs were aching all the way up to my knees but now my legs aren’t tired and painful. Initially, I didn’t want to wear compression socks because I didn’t want to look like an old lady. But heck, now I don’t care. I often show off my compression socks because they have fun designs and patterns. Compression socks will also help with blood circulation.”

Mix it up
“I have three types of shoes that I wear regularly to work,” McCroy says. “I change them out every few days. If I feel an ache or pain coming on, I wear my hard sole Dansko, all leather nursing shoe. I will warn you though, they take some getting used to. They are hard leather and stiff when you first get them, so you have to break them in. Practice walking in them at home. Wear them for half shifts to allow your feet to get used to them. 

Another thing to consider when wearing a Dansko shoe – the heel is high, notes McCroy. “I have rolled my ankles just walking down the hallways more times than I can count!” he says. 

McCroy saves his comfy tennis shoes for the afternoons. “I wear the type that are completely covered, so I can still wipe them down,” he says. “I usually spring for a running/athletic/training type tennis shoe – something meant for higher impact because the amount of time we are on our feet all day can feel like the equivalent of running a marathon.”

For desk days or low load patient days, McCroy pulls out his low back, all leather Klog. “They are slip- resistant, wipeable and comfy,” he says. “The back of the shoe doesn’t come all the way up the heel of the foot, so I don’t find them as restricting.”

Give your feet some TLC
“A good massage or pedicure can do wonders,” says McCroy. “Taking care of your feet means more than comfortable shoes. Trim your nails so they aren’t rubbing against the inside of your shoes or getting snagged when you’re putting on your compression socks. Help relax the muscles and tendons in your feet by soothing them with lotion and a nice soak. If you can’t afford a pedicure or don’t want to spend money, trim your toenails at home with clippers and soak them in your bathtub or kitchen sink (Rinse the sink out after please!) Again, your feet will thank you!”