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Going support free to be pain free. Turns out when it comes to shoes, less is more.

This is the motion analysis lab at Rush University Medical Center. It’s where researchers study biomechanics – or how we load our joints as we walk.

Dr. Najia Shakoor, Rheumatologist, Rush University Medical Center: “We study knee osteoarthritis, and for years we’ve been trying to find interventions to try and unload the knee or take force off the knee.”

The goal is to slow the progression of osteoarthritis – the wearing away of cartilage that cushions the joint. The most common form affects the inner knee.

Dr. Najia Shakoor: “You load that medial aspect of your knee when you are walking much more, so it makes sense if you are loading the medial aspect of your knee when you are walking more that you would get more arthritis. This got us interested in shoes and what shoes are actually doing to loads in the knee.”

Dr. Najia Shakoor: “We started to study all types of shoes. We looked at flimsy, lightweight shoes, flip flops, and then we looked at very supportive shoes like a stability shoe or a clog … shoes we traditionally as rheumatologists have recommended our patients wear because we thought, naturally, they may provide shock absorption.”

What Dr. Najia Shakoor and her team learned next disproved previous theories.

Dr. Najia Shakoor: “We were really surprised to find out it was the really supportive shoes that were increasing knee load. We looked at what they were like when they were walking barefoot. Their load was so much lower when they were barefoot than wearing any type of shoe …

The next step? Design a shoe that mimics being barefoot.

Dr. Najia Shakoor: “When you wear this shoe it would just give way everywhere your foot wants to bend while you are walking, it would give way as though you were barefoot but still provide a little bit of support and cover for your foot.”

54-year-old Jerry Hall signed on to test the mobility shoe. He wore the special design for a year hoping it would help lighten his load and ultimately reduce his pain.

Jerry Hall, mobility shoe tester: “At one point it was pretty intense. Scale of one to 10, I was an eight. This whole knee cap here, it didn’t move but you had the bone here that felt like it was touching up against here and the top was the pressure itself on the kneecap.”

The pain comes with walking … Jerry is on his feet up to 12 hours a day at his job.

Jerry Hall: “This just came on suddenly walking one day and, ‘Whoa! What is this pain?’ Try to think it’s going to go away and it progressed on and on. When you stepped into them and when you step with them you felt no pressure. It helped me out with the job. I walk easier, feel less pain.”

Dr. Najia Shakoor: “Just by changing a pair of shoes one has been wearing they were able to reduce load by 17%. We know high loads lead to greater progression. We’re hoping that by lowering loads we’ll get less progression over time.”

And that’s the next phase of the study – to determine if long-term use of the mobility shoe slows the progression of arthritis. In the meantime, if you have knee pain — try an experiment of your own.

Dr. Najia Shakoor: “If you’ve been wearing a different type of shoe find a shoe you can bend and twist and flexible and lightweight. If you need a little arch support add your own little arch support into and try it and see how it works for you.”

The new study is recruiting at Rush University Medical Center. The research team is screening patients who have had knee pain for more than six months or have a known history of knee osteoarthritis. (Dr. Shakoor plans to screen participants for specific exclusions.) Participants must be willing to walk in the study shoes for six months and will have four visits to Rush to evaluate and follow up on the effects of the shoes.

To learn more about the next phase of the mobility shoe study, call 312-563-2968.