Wardrobe Woes: Hidden Health Hazards of Clothing

VIDEO: Experts say forgoing comfort for fashion might lead to health problems.
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Men and women who shoehorn themselves into skin-tight jeans, battle to button their trousers or knot their neckties too tightly might unknowingly suffer nerve damage, digestive disturbances and even potentially deadly blood clots.

They're victims of fashion's hidden health hazards. Even some favorite accessories, like waist-cinching belts, can compress delicate nerves in the abdomen or constrain breathing and deprive heart and brain of needed oxygen.

It's enough to make you think ancient Romans showed sartorial smarts with loose-fitting togas.

For years, we've heard orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists warn that spike-heeled pointy pumps and sky-high platform sandals and boots lead to sprained ankles, strained backs, shortened Achilles tendons, disfigured toes and arthritis. Yet those warnings fail to stop many women from taking their chances with styles that could leave them sprawled on a sidewalk.

"Who hasn't tried to squeeze into a too-small pair of shoes, or wriggle into too-tight jeans?" said Dr. Orly Avitzur, a neurologist in Tarrytown, N.Y., who started warning about too-constricting skinny jeans on her Consumer Reports blog back in 2009. "Sometimes we realize right away that our choice of wardrobe or fashion is the culprit; other times, it only dawns on us when we begin to really suffer."

When patients seek medical help for pain radiating into the thigh, or numbness, or tingling, it's unlikely they suspect that the cut of their jeans might be the problem.

But sharp-eyed physicians like Dr. Malvinder S. Parmar, medical director of Timmins & District Hospital in Ontario, Canada, might recognize the hallmarks of meralgia paresthetica, the compression of a nerve running from the pelvis into the outer thigh.

In 2003, Parmar published a description of "tingly thighs" in three "mildly obese" women who wore low-rise jeans throughout the previous few months. Their discomforts resolved after four to six weeks "avoiding hiphuggers and wearing loose-fitting dresses," according to Parmar's 2003 correspondence in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Fashionista and frump are both vulnerable to suffering for fashion's sake. Control-top pantyhose and compression undergarments designed to minimize tummies, flab and muffin tops "have flooded the marketplace and invaded our closets," Avitzur said. She advises anyone who develops physical ills from these undergarments to ditch them: "They are not worth the pain."

Avitzur has watched skintight Lycra and Spandex undergarments catch fire among teen athletes. A 15-year-old high school soccer player came to her last year with numbness, tingling and discomfort in her left thigh. Avitzur diagnosed a compressed nerve likely caused by Spanx.

The patient said all her teammates wore colored Spanx beneath their uniforms. Avitzur was stunned. "I didn't believe someone so young would be wearing the equivalent of our mothers' generation's girdle," Avitzur said.

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