In Pain? Skinny Jeans Can Do Nerve Damage

Doctors say some skinny jeans, thongs and boots really can cause damage.

ByABC News
May 28, 2009, 6:13 PM

May 29, 2009— -- Whatever fashion experts might say about UGG-style boots, skinny jeans with thongs peeking above the belt or handbags with tiny dogs nestled in them, some doctors and researchers are now weighing in for the public good.

Popular fashion choices can actually cause serious medical conditions and nasty infections, doctors say.

Skinny jeans in the 70s used to cause some emergency room visits to remove the fabric. The new and improved stretch fabric in today's skinny jeans has led to an uptick in nerve damage.

Many items carry a risk of causing joint pain, muscle pain, nerve damage and infections.

ABC News talked with experts researching and treating these problems for advice on healthy fashion choices, and to uncover myths about clothing with a bad reputation for your health.

Skinny jeans have the reputation of being painful on egos, full stomachs and, occasionally, hard on the eyes.

But Dr. Orly Avitzur, a neurologist at Yale University, has found yet another way skinny jeans have been hurting people in the long-term, meralgia paresthetica.

Avitzur said doctors used to see meralgia paresthetica among girdle wearers, but the lycra-infused denim worn by women and young hipster men today has resurrected the fashion-derived pain.

The condition starts when tight-fitting clothing compresses a nerve in the groin close to the skin's surface. Put enough pressure on it, and the whole nerve can begin to react, running from your groin, to your outer thigh and down toward the knee.

"It can feel anywhere from numb to prickly, to a tingle, to burning, to painful or irritating," Avitzur said.

What's worse, even if people throw out the skinny jeans, their pain may linger. "It can take some time for it to dissipate? weeks or months even sometimes, if the damage is extensive," Avitzur said.

Skinny jeans-bearing youth aren't the only ones to suffer from this painful condition. Avitzur said pregnant women and obese people can also suffer from nerve compression. Across the population, Avitzur estimates 4 in 10,000 have suffered.

But Dr. Elizabeth Steiner in Oregon has seen other problems from pesky skinny jeans in her female patients.

Steiner said that when a person uses the toilet, it's normal for bacteria "to populate" around the anus.

But, in women, "our vaginas, our anuses and our urethras are very close together," Steiner said.

When a woman wears tight jeans, tight underwear, or even thongs with tight jeans, Steiner said it can set up just the right conditions to move the bacteria from the anus, where they normally live, up to areas where the bacteria doesn't belong.

"The friction can move bacteria along the perineum up to the vagina and to the urethra," she said. "Bacteria are sneaky."

Then, because women's urethras are very short compared to men, the bacteria can move up into the bladder and cause a bladder infection or urinary tract infections, Steiner said. But there are more risks for fungal, not bacterial infection.

"These clothing can cause chaffing and they can cause poor air circulation," Steiner said. "There's nothing yeast like better than a dark, wet place."

Steiner said women need not throw away all their thongs, skinny jeans and the like, just don't wear them all the time.

"The best thing women can do to reduce their risk is to eat a cup of non-fat yogurt with probiotic culture every day," Steiner said.

High heels cause the wearer to unnaturally tip forward on the balls of their feet, ruining correct walking posture, according to Dr. Scott Boden, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of the Emory Spine Center at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Although he stresses that underlying conditions are ultimately the main determinate of whether back problems will arise, Boden says unusual posture caused by the shoes causes the lower back to rely heavily on the set joints, making the lower back especially susceptible to pain.

"Wearing shoes with little or no heel support can lead to plantar fasciitis, which is basically heel pain, and could require anti-inflammatory shots, or even possibly surgery," he said.

Cheap, flat sandals with little or no shock absorption potential can lead to other serious foot and ankle problems, such as severe tendinitis, that are not easily remedied.

In addition, flip-flops naturally provide no physical protection for the foot from falling or sharp objects. The American Podiatric Medical Association details the dos and don'ts of flip-flop wearing in its recent "Tips to Avoid a Flip-Flop Fiasco" bulletin, stressing the appropriate use and sizing if a person must wear sandals.

"It's OK to wear flip-flops in a poolside setting," Jensen said. "But they shouldn't be worn for yard work or operation heavy machinery."

But Jensen and the association's summer bulletin do both note that a well-structured flip-flop with an appropriate heel is fine to wear under the right circumstances.

According the Jensen, a soft sole, as is often seen in furrier versions of the popular shoe, allows for a lack of foot support that the shoe should be giving. If a foot can slide around significantly, it will cause the tendons on the side of the ankle to stretch uncomfortably in order to maintain balance.

"Wearing the wrong shoes is no guarantee of back pain," said Boden, who added that many people can wear either heeled or flat shoes without resulting back problems.

But underlying conditions such as arthritis can potentially give way to physical pain and further back problems, brought on by the inappropriate support provided by some footwear.

Steiner's "number No. 1 bra myth" is that under wires cause cancer. Her number No. 2 myth is that the wrong bra can cause back pain.

"If you have an unsupportive bra, the bra won't cause back pain," Steiner said. "Having a properly fitted bra can alleviate a little bit, but back pain is related to large breasts, and insufficient back muscles and abdominal muscles."

Steiner recommends women suffering from back pain to strengthen their back and their abdominal muscles. Also, she recommends that women try on all bras before purchasing.

"Even if you have the same size breast as your next door neighbor, they may be a different shape," Steiner said.

"Because you have this heavy weight on one side, your muscles on the other side are straining to keep you upright," Steiner said.

One might ditch the overloaded bag for a smaller one and Steiner said it's also possible to avoid the problem if you can remember to switch sides daily.

But for most people who will continue to carry bags, and subconsciously put them on one side, Steiner has more realistic recommendations.

"Exercise to strengthen back muscles can help," Steiner said. "And the best way to carry your handbag is across around your neck and across your shoulder to the other side."