To manage foot and lower limb pain in children

Guest blog written by podiatrist Daniel van Hoof-Harkin, B. Pod (Hons)

When a child starts to complain of pain in their legs or feet for whatever reason – after activity, ‘growing pains’ at night, or joint inflammation caused by a condition like juvenile arthritis (JIA) – often the first thing I’ll look at is their footwear. Specifically, what footwear they wear and when and how they wear them. I’ll then spend time discussing and trying to recommend footwear. That’s because good shoes can be a first-line treatment in relieving pain.

To help you choose the best footwear for your child, here are my suggestions for things to look for.

Getting the right support

To a large extent, you get what you pay for with shoes. Cheaper shoes are usually made with lower quality materials and have less support than more expensive footwear. This is why quality shoes can cost significantly more.

When I look at a pair of shoes for someone in pain, I’m looking primarily at four things:

  • Heel pitch – Also known as drop or offset, it is the difference in height between the heel and forefoot within the shoe. Ideally, shoes should have approximately 10mm, as this helps to reduce the effects of reduced ankle range of motion, or for high arched people whose forefoot sits lower than their heel.
  • Torsional rigid shank – This is the stiffness of a shoe between the heel and the forefoot and helps to stabilise mobile feet, especially on graded surfaces.
  • Heel counter – This is usually a piece of plastic that wraps around the heel in shoes and helps to reduce inversion and eversion of the rearfoot during lower impact activities.
  • Upper fixation – This will normally be achieved with either Velcro or laces, but also aided by the upper of a shoe.

Most brand-name sneakers will have all of these qualities, which will help support the feet and legs of children, whether they’re walking or running. However, if a shoe lacks any of these qualities, it’ll provide less support for your child’s feet.

For example, Mary Jane style school shoes don’t have as much upper, and only a single strap to secure them. That means they’ll offer less support than a pair of laced shoes.

Mary Jane school shoesLaced school shoes

Orthotics – Yes or no?

Orthotics can often be a controversial subject, but just like any form of therapy, if used correctly, they can make a big difference for a child with leg or foot pain. And there’s evidence that they have a place in managing JIA and hypermobility-related disorders.

But when should they be considered? Sometimes I’ll recommend foot orthotics immediately, and other times I’ll let people know they’re unlikely to help their symptoms. As a general rule of thumb, if your child has good quality footwear and wears them appropriately, but they’re still experiencing ongoing pain, they may require some form of in-shoe support. In this case, visiting a podiatrist for an assessment would be worthwhile.

School shoes vs trainers

A good quality trainer is usually a more comfortable and better option for most active kids. This is because trainers have thicker midsoles that provide a good balance between structure and cushioning, especially when kids play on hard graded surfaces like concrete. School shoes are usually more of a dress shoe, which means they have less cushioning and generally don’t tolerate as much punishment as trainers.
At the end of the day, school shoes are often determined by the uniform requirements of the school, and if dress shoes are required, then fit and comfort when wearing need to be the most important factors.

Alleviating foot pain

When recommending shoes to parents, I’ll often ask how active their child is. I’ll then ask, ‘if you were going to be doing the same things as your child, which shoes would you choose to wear?’ Imagining yourself in your child’s place means you’ll have a better understanding of what’s most appropriate.

The other aspect we don’t often realise is how hard graded surfaces can be on our feet and ankles. If your child is susceptible to experiencing pain, then I’d recommend they wear structured sneakers more often. It’s also important they wear them on outings to places like shopping centres, theme parks, or on days with lots of walking. Less structured footwear like thongs, or ballet flats, should only be used for short outings, where there won’t be much walking involved.

Leg length discrepancy and heel lifts

Differences in the length of legs, or leg length discrepancies, happen more frequently than we think. It’s been reported between 40-70% of the population have a difference in leg length, and one in every 1000 people can have a difference of greater than 20mm.

Leg length discrepancies can be difficult to assess clinically and almost impossible to measure accurately without performing scans to assess bone lengths and joint alignment. Also, kids can often grow asymmetrically, meaning one leg may grow faster than another. However, I often see these leg length differences have disappeared 6 months later.

So I’m usually not too concerned when I come across a leg length discrepancy unless the child has pain I believe is being influenced by it or the leg length difference is such that I see significant postural problems occurring. Once again, if there’s concern about the presence of a leg length discrepancy, it’s worth having it assessed by a health professional, and whether it is indicated to include a heel lift under the shorter leg.

Finding the right fit

Ultimately, the most important thing when it comes to footwear for any child is fit. Given how quickly children can grow, keeping up with their shoe size can become a frequent and sometimes costly exercise. However, it’s vital for growing feet.

Making sure that shoes aren’t too small is essential, as small footwear can cause pain, injury, and difficulty with movement. When checking shoe fit, try and establish their size when they’re standing. This is because feet may become longer when standing, changing the shoe size compared to sitting. It’s also important that the footwear isn’t too big, as this can cause increased movement within the footwear that can affect stability. If shoes are too long, they can also pose a trip hazard to a child.

This advice is, of course, very general, and individual needs will vary. But as a starting point for parents of children with lower limb pain, this advice can be a useful for reducing symptoms.

Contact our free national Help Line

Call our nurses if you have questions about juvenile arthritis, managing pain, treatment options, or accessing services. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email ( or via Messenger.


Looking after your feet

Our feet are amazing ‘feats’ of engineering (sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one).

Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments. They support us through thick and thin – whether we’re walking, running, jumping, dancing, skipping or hopping. We cram them into ill-fitting shoes, torture them in high heels and stub them against the bedside table in the middle of the night (or is that just me?).

As well as the many injuries and calamities that befall our feet, many musculoskeletal conditions, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout can affect the feet.

They’re the unsung heroes of this pandemic as we hit the streets, parks and trails for exercise. Walking has become the exercise of choice for people at the moment. Many of us can’t – or don’t feel safe to – return to gyms or exercises classes. And lots of people are walking instead of catching public transport to avoid being in close contact with others. As a result we’re all walking many more steps than we did pre-COVID.

So we need to stop taking our feet for granted. We need to look after them so we can continue to do the things we want and need to do as pain-free as possible.

So what can we do?

Give your feet the TLC they deserve. It’s really important to look after your feet. Wash and dry them regularly. Inspect them for anything unusual such as cuts, blisters, changes to the nails and skin. By being aware of your feet and any changes that occur, you can seek advice sooner. And if they’re sore after a day of walking, maybe give them a warm soak in the bath, or in a bucket or a foot spa (if you have one) while you watch TV. Then dry them thoroughly and rub a moisturising foot cream into your skin. Take your time and give your feet a nice massage. Better yet, see if you can talk someone else into giving them a massage while you relax on the couch.

Manage your condition. If you have a musculoskeletal condition that affects your feet, it’s important that you work with your doctor and healthcare team to look after your feet and manage your condition effectively. The treatments used for foot conditions will vary from person to person, depending on your condition and how it’s affecting you. And this may change over time as your condition and your feet change.

See a podiatrist. If you have foot pain, or a condition that affects your feet, visit a podiatrist. They’re feet experts and can assess, diagnose and treat foot and lower limb problem, including skin and nail problems, foot and ankle injuries, foot complications related to medical conditions and problems with your gait or walking. Podiatrists can also give you advice on appropriate footwear, and can prescribe custom foot orthotics.

Consider orthotics. Orthotics are corrective insoles that can help alleviate pain by redistributing pressure away from the painful area and support your arches. You can buy off-the-shelf orthotics or you can have orthotics made that are specifically fitted to your feet by a podiatrist.

Fit your feet with appropriate footwear. With our worlds turned upside down due to COVID, and many of us having to stay home, it’s tempting to stay in our slippers all day. There’s something so comforting about warm, fluffy slippers. However our feet and ankles need proper support. Wear the right footwear for whatever you’re doing. Going for a walk? Put on your sneakers. Working at home? Wear your casual shoes/boots that support your feet and keep you warm. And lounging around in the evening? Get those slippers on.

If you’re buying new shoes, make sure they fit properly, support your feet and are comfortable. Look for shoes that are light, flexible at the toe joints and are hard wearing. Shoes made of leather are preferable over synthetic materials as they breathe better. Avoid slip-on shoes and if laces are difficult to fasten due to arthritis in your hands, Velcro or elastic laces may be an option.

Let them breathe. Did you know you have about 250,000 sweat glands in each foot? That’s a lot of sweat! So let your feet breathe to avoid smelly feet and fungal infections. Change your socks and shoes at least once a day. Wear shoes that allow air flow around your feet: leather, canvas, and mesh are good options, avoid nylon and plastic. And avoid wearing the same shoes two days in a row. Give your shoes time (at least a day) to dry and air out. And if the weather’s warm, set your feet free and let them go au naturale. There’s nothing better than walking barefoot on warm grass on a sunny day.

Exercise your feet. I’m not talking about walking here…but other exercises that keep your joints moving. Try non-weight-bearing exercises such as swimming, especially if you have foot pain, as they take the pressure away from the painful areas. You can also do exercises while sitting in a chair. NHS Inform (Scotland) has some foot exercise videos you can try. If you want exercises tailored specifically for you, visit a podiatrist or physiotherapist.

Medications might help. If you’re having a lot of foot pain, speak with your doctor about whether medications may be an option. Depending on the underlying condition causing the problem, your doctor may prescribe a short-term course of pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications, or they may prescribe other medications, such as a cortisone injection into a joint for rheumatoid arthritis or medication for acute attacks of gout.

Diabetes and feet. Many people with musculoskeletal conditions also have diabetes. So it’s really important if you have diabetes that you take care of your feet every day because of the increased risk of developing nerve damage, ulcers and infections. Talk with doctor about how to look after your feet properly if you have diabetes.

Surgery may be required. For some people, surgery may be needed if other conservative treatments haven’t helped. A referral to an orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in feet is usually required.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, COVID-19, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, telehealth or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email ( or via Messenger.

More to explore

musculoskeletal health australia

Musculoskeletal Health Australia (or MHA) is the consumer organisation working with, and advocating on behalf of, people with arthritis, osteoporosis, back pain, gout and over 150 other musculoskeletal conditions.

Useful Links

Copyright by Musculoskeletal Health Australia 2024. All rights reserved

ABN: 26 811 336 442ACN: 607 996 921