Active Recovery

The Easiest Way To Relieve Foot and Toe Pain While Lounging on the Couch, According to a Podiatrist

Erica Sloan

Getty Images/Cavan Images
As a former ballet dancer, I know a thing or two about toe and foot pain. Throughout my years of cramming my toes into satin-covered torture devices (er, pointe shoes) and then pushing my good-as-flat feet into arched shapes that they resisted at every turn, I experienced quite a few common foot problems: blisters, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and if I hadn’t stopped sooner, probably bunions, too. Though I managed a few of these conditions myself with resistance-band stretching, foot massage, and a whole lot of ice, I also sought the advice of medical professionals, and almost every podiatrist I saw recommended I use toe separators.

Toe separators (also called toe spacers or toe stretchers) look similar to the foam toe holders that keep nail polish from smudging during pedicures, but these specific versions are made of a sturdier material like medical-grade gel or silicone. They work by helping to realign toes to their rightful position while providing a gentle stretch. To use them, you just slide each of your toes into the designated holes, and… that’s it. Larger types like YogaToes are meant to be worn barefoot and while off your feet—so, you can just pop them on while watching TV, and let them do their thing—while smaller models with a flatter profile can be worn in shoes.

“Toe separators are a great way to stretch the small muscles around the toes as well as the toes themselves.” —Emily Splichal, DPM

Although they’re extra-helpful for realigning the toes of those who shove their feet into confined spaces (looking at you, wearers of pointy-toed shoes), the separators offer additional benefits, too. “I recommend toe separators to almost all my patients,” says podiatrist Emily Splichal, DPM. “I find that they’re a great way to stretch the small muscles around the toes as well as the toes themselves.”

And since toes and feet bear your full body weight with every step, toe flexibility is no small issue. “If the big toe can’t flex very well, you’ll land differently, and it really sets up a lot of imbalance in the chain of muscles and into the hip,” Stephen Pasterino, the founder of P.volve in New York City, previously told Well+Good. Without toe flexibility, your plantar fascia (which spans the length of your instep) can also lose its ability to absorb shock well, putting you more at risk for plantar fasciitis, too.

Beyond their preventative powers, though, toe separators can also mitigate the foot and toe pain that may result from regular walking or running, and may also help slow the progression of common toe conditions. “People with hammertoes, bunions, and neuromas will all benefit from toe separators,” says Dr. Splichal. While some severe cases of these conditions could require more intense treatment, she still suggests that her patients with rigid hammertoes or severe bunions incorporate toe separators into their daily routines. “Bringing even a little mobility and alignment of the forefoot is beneficial,” she adds.

Particularly in the case of bunions, recent research backs her up: A small 2018 study of 56 women with moderate bunions published in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association found that a combination treatment of toe separators with foot mobilization exercises resulted in a significant reduction in bunion severity at the mark of one year of use.

Dr. Splichal has found that the results from toe separators tend to be more pronounced in her patients who wear them more regularly. But as is true with any stretching, it’s best to start slow at first, wearing the toe separators for a few minutes each night, then increasing the length of time as you get used to them. “Typically, I find patients can only wear them for so long, so I advise people to listen to their bodies and take them off whenever they become irritating,” says Dr. Splichal. Below, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite toe separators to get you started.

3 podiatrist-recommended toe separators to try for foot or toe pain:

Correct Toes — $65.00

Correct Toes are the separators that Dr. Splichal most often recommends to her patients. They’re also small and slim enough to wear in your sneakers so that they work while you’re on the go.

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Original YogaToes — $37.00

YogaToes are an OG of the toe-separator category. They come in a variety of sizes, all of which are designed to be worn while relaxing (as the supportive bottom piece makes them too bulky for wearing in shoes).

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Mind Bodhi Toe Separators — $10.00

Because of their smaller profile, Dr. Splichal recommends these Mind Bodhi separators to anyone with smaller toes or feet, who might benefit from a lower-intensity stretch. Like Correct Toes, these can be worn while walking, exercising, or in shoes.

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Looking to try out a few active stretches that tackle the whole foot? Follow along with trainer Traci Copeland here:

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