The Ache: We often don’t think about our feet much—until they start hurting. Painful conditions such as hammertoe, bunions and plantar fasciitis are common later in life.
The Claim: A simple exercise of stretching your toes sideways, done in yoga classes or with toe-spreading devices such as YogaToes, can improve the health of your feet and prevent or ease foot pain, say some yoga teachers and companies that sell the devices.
The Verdict: Physicians say toe-stretching appears to help with a wide variety of foot pain, but add that it will be most effective when used along with strengthening exercises. Scientific evidence is scant, but a small study presented at a scientific meeting in 2012 found that toe-stretching with YogaToes, from FenF LLC, Dexter, Mich., eased painful muscle contractions in the foot in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Stretching your toes laterally elongates the muscles and keeps them relaxed, says Dr. Grace Torres-Hodges, a podiatric surgeon in Pensacola, Fla., and a spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association. It isn’t a cure for conditions such as hammertoes or bunions, but in some patients may ease pain and possibly even slow the progression,
Toe-stretching is most effective for preventing and treating foot pain if you combine it with strengthening exercises—such as picking up marbles from the floor with your toes, says Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, a sports-medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City.
When most students come to yoga class, they can’t separate all their toes sideways from each other, particularly the pinkie toe, says Iyengar yoga teacher Roger Cole, in Del Mar, Calif. In Iyengar classes, which focus on precise alignment, students who have difficulty spreading their toes are instructed to lean over and manually separate them, and over time to learn to keep them separated in all standing poses, Dr. Cole says.
YogaToes, inspired by inventor Frederic Ferri’s experience in Iyengar yoga classes, is a $39.95 ladder-shaped plastic gel that you place between each of your toes, moistening it first so it slides on easily. A popular version of the product, called Gems, $29.95, doesn’t have a top rail, making it a bit more flexible and a good starter device, the company says.