There seems to be a new fad out there: toe separators/spacers/stretchers. It looks like something I'd see at the nail salon (which works excellent to doing those toe nails!) But why else would people want to use them?
They were developed to help common problems of the foot such as bunions, hammer toes, claw toes, crooked toes, as well as plantar fasciitis. These deformities have been seen to become bigger in the running community.
Toe spacers were formed to release pressure and realign the toes. They don't just benefit the toes, but the foot as well. Especially in runners, when the toes aren't properly aligned, runners can develop neuromas, sesamesoiditis, and capsulitis.
If you consistently wear tight, narrow shoes, you will feel little to no effect when "training" your toes." When toes are crammed up, it decreases the blood supply in the foot and puts more limitations on range of motion. Healthy feet have wide, spread out toes. The big toe should be able to function separate from the others. The wider your toes spread out, the bigger your base of support. Increased base of support = better stability.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a surge in research connecting falls and foot pain. A study in 2010 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society linked those who fell were more likely to have been bothered by foot pain than those who didn't fall. A study in 2011 in the medical journal BMJ showed that the group in a foot-care exercise program reduced the number of falls by 36%.
A study in 2018 had results suggesting that a foot mobilization and exercise program, combined with use of a toe separator, decreases the pain intensity, and functional disability. It also increased the hallux plantarflexion and abduction strength, toe grip strength, and ankle dorsiflexion range of motion after 3 months of the treatment.
There are now a different variety of types, as it is no longer a "one size fits all" type solution. Those varieties includes gel, moleskin, cotton, and foam. Some are even made to look like socks. They are thin, yet protective and durable.
Even though some of them can be worn when walking, it is best to wear them when relaxing. It may feel uncomfortable at first (remember all the years of stress from wearing the wrong shoes), so ease into them starting with 15 minutes a day up to 1 hour per day. You need to adjust into them to avoid excessive stretching and cramping.
Much more research is needed to suggest the positive advantages of toe spacers as studies are limited, and many of those consisting of other remedies included. Toe spacers do seem to reduce pain and increase function.