Education

My Barefoot Story Series: The difficult journey to diagnosis, capsulitis and neuromas with Cheyenne

November 13, 2023
My Barefoot Story: How Barefoot Shoes Helped Me

The path to recovery is anything but easy. But, often times, understanding the source of pain and the journey to get a diagnosis can be one of the biggest hurdles before you even begin.

I started the My Barefoot Story series to give people a platform to share their experiences working towards better foot health. This is not to be taken as medical advice, but I know how helpful it can be to hear the issues others have dealt with and how they were able to work through them.

In this next installment of the series, Cheyenne Hayden shares her experience trying to understand why she went from someone that was weightlifting and walking 10K+ steps a day, to then struggling to walk only a few thousand steps, and even losing the ability to drive. 

After many appointments with neurologists and a spinal surgeon, going through x-rays and EMG testing, she finally started to get some answers when she talked with an orthopedist and podiatrist. They found evidence of capsulitis and two neuromas, and thought that hypermobility along with a perfect storm of other events led to Cheyenne’s current condition. 

The road to better foot and whole body health included a lot of physical therapy, surgery, and a transition to barefoot shoes. Keep reading for Cheyenne’s full story.

You can follow Cheyenne on her YouTube channel.

Have a story you think others would benefit from hearing? Email me at barefootshoeguide@gmail.com.

This is not medical advice. The best option is to find a medical practitioner that will guide you through your specific situation.

My Barefoot Story Q&A: Cheyenne Hayden

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1. Why did you start looking into barefoot shoes? Were you dealing with foot pain or any other health issues? 

I vividly remember the first time I learned about barefoot shoes. About 4-5 years ago, my partner bought his first pair. He would go on and on raving about them, but I was totally disinterested, mainly because they looked different. 

However, all of this changed when I began to experience debilitating pain, weakness and muscle spasms. 

When quarantine first started in 2020, I went from being an avid weightlifter and largely active person to the complete opposite. I largely benefit from external motivation to accomplish my goals; so, when all the gyms closed, I hit a big roadblock. I was working remotely and in school at the time, so I spent most of my time on the couch – or worse, in bed – completing assignments and working on projects.  

After a few months of total and complete inactivity, I started to physically feel horrible. I began doing some home HIIT workouts and made it a habit to walk around 10,000 steps per day. Unfortunately, I ramped up to this level of activity way too quickly and, in hindsight, in the wrong footwear.  

Even though I was exercising again, I started to feel terrible all over. My symptoms were peripheral neuropathy in both feet, SI joint pain, muscle spasms in my feet and legs, and general weakness in both hip flexors. I was imbalanced all over.  

Starting to seek medical help

These symptoms eventually limited me to 2,000-3,000 steps a day, and I lost the ability to drive. I was very worried about the growing severity of my symptoms, so I started to seek out medical help. 

Since I was wearing conventional exercise shoes at the time, there was no part of me that thought to examine my feet as a potential source of the problem. In fact, none of my doctors even thought to look at my feet, either. 

My primary care physician initially recommended magnesium and vitamin D for possible deficiencies that could be causing my muscle cramps. Unfortunately, this didn’t help at all.  

I saw neurologists and spinal surgeons, got x-rays of my back and underwent all sorts of EMG testing. Everything came back as normal. I was diagnosed with neuropathy, but they told me it was a symptom, not a cause.  

One doctor even went so far as to tell me that I was too young to be experiencing these kinds of issues, and that my pain was in my head! A real-life neurologist said that to my face. As you can imagine, this was all a very traumatic experience. It was a two-year ordeal of waiting to see doctors, testing, and still not getting any answers.  

Getting answers

Finally, I went to see an orthopedist about my back, and she referred me to her personal podiatrist. These two doctors plus a highly experienced physical therapist, changed my life. They made me feel heard and raised the possibility of a mechanical issue being at play – rather than an internal or systemic one. 
 
 Once they finally examined my feet, they found evidence of capsulitis in both feet and two neuromas in my right foot. I had scar tissue all over.  

A neuroma is a disorganized growth of nerve cells at the site of a nerve injury. A neuroma occurs after a nerve is partially or completely disrupted by an injury — either due to a cut, a crush, or an excessive stretch. 

My podiatrist was a very experienced foot surgeon, but he wanted to try a conservative route before going under the knife to remove the neuromas. I remember being frustrated at the time, but I’m so grateful he made this choice. This extra time gave me the opportunity to build up my strength in other areas so I could later recover from my surgery much more efficiently.  

My physical therapist was an ex-figure skater, so she knew feet well. She was the first one that presented the possibility of hypermobility as the source of my issues. In other words, when I stopped weightlifting, all the muscle that was holding my joints in place slowly atrophied. This led to undue pressure on my feet, which traveled up the chain to my knees, hips, and lower back. I am still so grateful to her for helping me understand my body as one interconnected whole. Like I said before, all my work with her was focused on regaining my strength and balance.  

Physical Therapy and Surgery

After eight months of intensive physical therapy that didn’t fully remedy symptoms, surgery started to become the only option. I was terrified at the thought of it, but I truly felt like I had no choice. Even after trying various nerve pain medications and even getting a steroid shot, I wasn’t able to get my most localized symptoms under control. I had regained my strength in other areas and had even made it back to the gym to do some very mild weight-resistant exercise, but there was a cap to how far I could go (mind you, I’m still wearing conventional shoes at this point).  

I had surgery on June 9th, 2022 – just over one year ago. The surgery was successful, but it’s not what got me to the finish line – barefoot shoes(and toe socks!) did. After my surgery, I realized that the only way to build up my foot strength post-physical therapy was to incorporate some form of foot exercise into my daily life. I needed to find a way to encourage more foot and toe mobility in a sustainable, low-effort way. 

This meant finally exploring barefoot shoes! When I got out of my surgical boot, barefoot shoes were the only kind of shoe that my feet could tolerate. We had discovered that I also had two neuromas in my left foot, but they weren’t nearly as severe as the ones I had on the right.  

My new job became rehabilitating and strengthening my right foot while also strengthening and preventing aggravation of the neuromas in my left. Being able to feel the ground underneath my feet was unbelievably stabilizing. I started to wear them more and more, increasing my wear time weekly. In conjunction with toe spacers and my daily foot exercises, they have completely changed my life! I have been 90% pain-free ever since I made the switch. It’s been over a year since my surgery, and I’m now comfortably lifting heavy in the gym daily and can safely walk upwards of 15,000 steps in one day. Driving is still a bit uncomfortable for me, but I practice often and have confidence that I’ll be back to where I was in due course. 

Part of me wishes that I understood the benefits of barefoot shoes years ago. If this was the case, it is possible I could’ve prevented the need for surgery. I’m stronger for my journey, though, and I’m grateful that it brought me to where I am today. I can now enjoy hikes, family trips, and social outings again without being limited by pain – and that, to me, is huge! 

2. What encouraged you to make the leap and buy a pair of barefoot shoes? 

One day (pre-surgery), my physical therapist came into our session wearing a pair of vivo slip-ons…I was intrigued. She told me about how she didn’t wear them every day, but that she loved them for days when she felt like her toes just needed some extra room to breathe. That one sentence really resonated with what I had been feeling up to then – my feet had no room to breathe.  

I was wearing shoes that didn’t support the natural shape of my foot, and they were weakened as a result. We then got into a lengthy conversation about footwear and how too much cushioning can be damaging, as well as any shoe with an elevated heel or a narrow toe box. She even taught me about how any shoe that isn’t securely attached to your foot (i.e. slides) will cause you to walk in compensatory motions, which can cause harm over time.  

I quickly realized that I had basically lived most of my life in Chelsea boots, slides, Reeboks, and athletic sneakers of the Brooks/Nike/Hoka variety. No wonder I was having so much trouble! Soon after this conversation, I decided to buy myself a pair of Vivos identical to hers. 

3. What was your first pair of barefoot shoes? Going back, would you have opted for a different pair? 

Before I tried barefoot shoes, I started with orthopedic shoes based on my physical therapist’s recommendation. They were meant to help people with neuropathic pain; they had a slightly wider toe box, but they still had a fair amount of cushion and caused “toe bite,” which did not remedy my metatarsalgia at all.  

My first pair of truly barefoot shoes were the same ones that my physical therapist had – the Vivo Opanka Women’s. However, I ended up having to sell them because they didn’t have enough cushion for my transition phase.  

My next pair after that were the Lems Primal Zen. These were the perfect choice for me! There were the right combination of cushion, a very wide toe box and lots of flexibility. They might still be my favorite pair! 

Find the Barefoot Shoe Guide’s best barefoot shoes for beginners list here (we love the Primal Zens too!)

4. What else did you do that helped your transition to barefoot shoes? (Anything like foot exercises, working with a gait specialist, toe spacers, etc) 

My first physical therapist had me purchase a pair of toe spacers, which I started to wear in the evenings while watching TV. She also had me do some toe lifts and balance exercises.  

When I moved back home to New York City after my foot surgery, I started working with another physical therapist who focused on helping me further strengthen my intrinsic foot muscles. These exercises included towel/t-shirt scrunches, foot inversion/eversion exercises with resistance bands, calf raises, and arch-strengthening movements as well.  

Once I finished physical therapy, I’ve continued wearing my toe spacers around the house and still experiment with various foot/toe exercises I come across on Instagram within the barefoot shoe community. I also LOVE my Neuro Ball from Naboso Technology for releasing tension at the end of the day and often use a prescription CBD cream on my right foot whenever it’s feeling swollen or inflamed. 

Read more on how to transition to barefoot shoes.

Before wearing barefoot shoes, Cheyenne in 2022
Toe splay before transitioning to barefoot shoes, 2022
After six months of wearing barefoot shoes, using toe spacers and doing foot exercises, Cheyenne in 2023
Toe splay after wearing barefoot shoes for six months, 2023

5. What are your 3 favorite pairs of barefoot shoes? 

My 3 favorite pairs of barefoot shoes are my Lems Primal Zens, my Groundies Universes (with a thin insole for added cushioning), and ~fancy~ Vibram soled sandals from the Grecian Sandals shop on Etsy

6. Any last piece of advice you’d offer someone considering barefoot shoes? 

GO SLOW! And do your research. A lot of people rush into the barefoot lifestyle without learning how to properly strengthen their feet, and they can end up getting hurt (especially if you’re starting out with chronic pain). I learned the hard way that barefoot shoes force you to adjust your gait (i.e. heel striking is a big no-no). Conventional shoes with cushioning allow you to apply an excessive amount of force on your heel, but you can’t really do that in minimal footwear. If you do not adjust the way you walk to a more natural gait, you might experience some extensor tendonitis or heel pain. I personally prefer the push from my shoes to be more mindful of my gait cycle, because it encourages me to use all the muscles in my legs and feet rather than just “falling” on them as I walk. 

If you’re intimidated by the higher price point of barefoot shoes, from my experience it has been worth it. There are more affordable options (like WHITIN on Amazon), but for me, the vast improvements in daily function that I’ve gained through switching to barefoot shoes is priceless. 

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