One in every two people in Switzerland complains of back problems. But a new type of shoe, invented by a Swiss engineer, holds out the promise that backache may soon become a thing of the past.
Back problems have always perplexed the medical profession. As bipeds, humans are particularly prone to backache, but as yet no cure exists for this often agonising condition. As any sufferer will attest, painkillers, physiotherapy and regular exercises usually provide only temporary relief.
That may be changing, however, with the development of a new shoe, which targets the causes of backache, rather than the symptoms. The developer of this special footwear, Swiss engineer, Karl Muller, claims that simply wearing the shoes in the proper way will wipe out back pain for good.
The results are so promising that two leading Swiss health insurance companies, Swica and Helsana, have agreed to contribute to the cost of a pair for any of their customers who have been diagnosed with back problems.
Karl Muller's invention looks like an ordinary thick-soled shoe. The difference lies in the sole, which is designed to give the wearer a physical workout with every one of the thousands of steps he or she takes every day.
The key lies in the sole's complicated structure, but also in the way the shoes are used. Indeed, they come with an instruction video, which explains how the wearer should walk.
It took Muller more than six years of research and self-testing to perfect the shoes, which, he claims, "strengthen the ankles, the leg muscles, the abdominals, and the back. The aim is to make your body train without your having to exercise. It just happens as you go about your daily routine."
The shoe is called the MBT shoe - short for Masai-Barefoot-Technique. Masai is also the name of the Muller's company, which he runs with his partner - former Grasshoppers football player, Hans Niggl - from a modest headquarters in canton Thurgau. The firm was named after the Masai people of Kenya, who are known for their upright posture and strength.
Muller first became interested in posture while living in South Korea. There he noticed that Korean farmers had far straighter backs than westerners, and seldom suffered from backache. He subsequently became convinced that this was because of the uneven ground on which the farmers spent their days.
It was then he decided to develop footwear for people living in countries where flat floors and pavements are the norm. Four years ago, he invested all his money in manufacturing the shoe. He patented it, and has now seen its sales soar to more than 30,000 pairs.
The MBT shoe is not cheap. There are three types, a leather business shoe, a suede rapper-style
sneaker and a sporty sandal. They cost between 240 and 280 francs a pair.
The high cost, says Muller, is because the shoe is very complicated to manufacture (it's made in South Korea). However, he points out that the price is very reasonable compared to what one has to pay for medical treatment.
Indeed, Muller says his invention has been badly received by many members of the medical profession, because "it's a sort of competition for them. It's an easy way to cure back and joint problems... all you have to do is learn to walk properly. And for the medical community, the shoes could mean a great loss of patients."
Muller's other problem is marketing his innovation. Although the company has persuaded world-class sporting personalities to endorse the shoes - such as Swiss football captain, Ciriaco Sforza, and Kaiserslautern's Murat Yakin, Muller does not have the capital to advertise or market the product. "We're looking for partners who have money and passion," he says, likening the shoes to "a raw diamond that needs cutting... but once cut will be brilliant".
Muller developed the shoes to cure backache, but he says they have plenty of other applications. He claims they are perfect for elderly people who have trouble walking, or who suffer from Parkinson's Disease, because they strengthen the legs. And he says women who have just give birth should consider using them to help lose excess weight and tone the stomach muscles.
In fact, says Muller, anyone who wants to keep fit will benefit from wearing them. "The only people who I wouldn't recommend them to are those who can't walk barefoot in deep sand," he says with a chuckle.
The MBT shoes are only available via mail order - email: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Juliet Linley