For many women, high heels are the ultimate fashion statement. After all, Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw wore her Jimmy Choo stilettos with everything (even shorts!) while running down New York City's busy streets. What's more, high heels make our legs look longer and sleeker, so is it any surprise that most women own at least a pair or two?

But as stylish as high heels may be, according to experts, they also come with a host of potential drawbacks. High heels are defined as pumps with heels of more than two inches, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association, which has determined them to be "biomechanically and orthopedically unsound."

Podiatric Pitfalls

Wearing high heels puts an unnatural strain on the feet and may lead to the following health problems.

· Hammertoe.

When toes are forced against the front of shoes, an unnatural bending results. This can lead to hammertoe, a deformity in which the toe curls at the middle joint. Toes may press against the top of the toe box of the shoe, causing pain and pressure.

· Achilles tendon problems.

Women who wear high heels over a long period of time may experience a shortening of the Achilles tendon, which is located at the back of the foot and leg. This may result in Achilles tendonitis, as well as pain in the heel and arch of the foot.

· Nerve pain.

Because wearing tight shoes puts pressure on nerves, some experts believe they may cause long-term damage and even arthritis. High heels with pointed toes or rigid soles can impede the foot's mechanical function by limiting flexibility of the toes and ankles.

· Balance problems.

High-heeled shoes pitch the weight of the body forward onto the ball of the foot, which upsets the foot's stabilizing mechanics. This puts the individual at a higher risk of falling or spraining an ankle.

· Varicose and spider veins.

Wearing high-heeled shoes causes the wearer to use the muscles in the buttocks, rather than the calf muscles, to walk. This restricts blood flow in legs, and the lack of circulation may cause unsightly spider veins or more serious varicose veins.

· Neuroma.

This condition, also known as Morton's neuroma or plantar neuroma, is caused when feet are forced into tight, narrow high-heeled shoes. The shoes pinch a nerve and cause tissue to start forming around it, which can cause severe pain. This problem usually occurs in the third or fourth toes and, in rare cases, may affect the soles of the feet. If the problem is severe, surgery may be necessary.

Sound Footing

So, must women give up high heels entirely? Although most medical experts sanction them for special occasions, they should be avoided on a day-to-day basis. For healthier alternatives, keep the following tips in mind when purchasing new shoes.

· Select sensible heels.

Choose shoes with low heels (maximum height of one and a half inches) and a wide heel base to ensure that the foot is supported.

· Shop for shoes late in the day.

Feet swell as the day goes on, and shoes that fit in the morning may feel tight by the afternoon.

·Choose shoes that fit now.

Avoid selecting shoes that don't fit in the shoe store. There shouldn't be a 'breaking in' period; shoes should fit when they are initially tried on.