No doubt you’ve seen racks of squishy shoe insoles available on pharmacy shelves—some available for 10 bucks, others closer to 50—and wondered what the difference between them was.
You may have even heard conflicting stories from friends and relatives who’ve tried orthotic devices, whether prefabricated or podiatrist-prescribed, with mixed success. Some people swear by them. Others swear at them.
So it’s natural to wonder if the hype is all really worth it, and whether orthotics can really be the solution to your foot pain or fatigue.
Here’s your short and simple answer: yes, orthotics do really work, and can provide major relief for a vast range of common foot and ankle conditions—probably more than you think.
However . . .
The more complicated answer is that each case is different. Orthotics aren’t going to be the best choice for every individual—and even if orthotics can help you, if you aren’t wearing the correct ones, you aren’t going to reap the benefits!
Why They Work
Consider that your feet are, in many ways, like the foundation of a home—or maybe even the base of a Jenga tower! All your weight is concentrated there, and every other part of your body relies on them to provide effective support and stability.
Unfortunately, feet aren’t always up to the challenge—at least not as much as we would like. For example, you might have flat feet. Your arches might be too flexible, or too inflexible. A metatarsal might be a little longer than ideal. Bones in the hindfoot might be a little out of alignment
These seemingly minor structural and biomechanical quirks are at the root of a wide variety of painful foot conditions. And in fact, because bones and joints further up your skeleton may have to realign themselves to compensate for foot misalignments, your feet may even be the root of pain elsewhere.Orthotics are a highly practical way to deal with this problem. Instead of surgery to realign your feet, the orthotics cushion, support, or reposition your feet as needed, reducing or relieving pain and tension elsewhere.
What Kinds of Conditions Can Be Treated by Orthotics?
If structural or biomechanical flaws are at least partially responsible for your pain, there’s a great chance orthotics can be an important part of the solution. Conditions that we have successfully resolved with orthotics include:
- All kinds of foot pain. Heel pain (plantar fasciitis and other diagnoses) is the most common example here, but don’t forget about arch pain, forefoot pain, neuromas, and more.
- Pain elsewhere in the body. Very frequently, persistent knee, hip, and even back pain may be at least partially linked to misaligned feet. By realigning your foot biomechanics with orthotics, you will also realign the biomechanics of your entire lower body.
- Foot deformities. Bunions, hammertoes, and other structural foot deformities often form (and worsen) due to an underlying structural defect with the feet. Orthotics may help you slow the progression of these deformities, or even prevent them to some degree.
- Diabetic wounds and complications. Cushioned orthotics are often a great choice for people with diabetes, with or without diabetic shoes (as recommended by your physician). They help you protect your feet from damage, especially if you have neuropathy.
All Shapes, Sizes, and Materials
How can orthotics do all these things? And why do some people seem to get no benefit from them?
The short answer is that orthotics—especially ones that are custom made—exhibit a wide variety of features, materials, types, and purposes. That allows a trained podiatrist to match a specific set of orthotics to the specific needs of a patient.
(But it also means that simply buying insoles off the rack without guidance may not solve your problem at all, but only discourage you!)
One of the first choices we’ll help you make is whether you need custom orthotics, or whether a prefabricated insole will do.
In brief, the advantages of prefabs are that they’re inexpensive, don’t require a prescription, and you can get them immediately. But because they’re mass produced and can only approximately fit your foot shape (rather than exactly), they may not be as effective or appropriate for more severe biomechanical issues. They also likely won’t last as long, negating some of the up-front financial savings.
Custom orthotics, by contrast, are unique for every individual, matched to a mold, impression, or sometimes even computer scan of your feet. They are a little more costly up front and it may take a couple of weeks to get them back from the lab. However, they can do much more (and do it more effectively) than prefabricated insoles.
We can further break down custom orthotics by their intended function into two broad categories:
- Functional orthotics correct and control abnormal motion and help realign your joints, so that your walking gait is more normal. They tend to be made from firmer materials—think plastic, graphite, carbon fiber, etc. This makes them ideal for a lot of sports injuries, as well as knee, hip, and back pain.
- Accommodative orthotics are designed for shock absorption, balance, and redirecting or relieving pressure away from specific areas. They’re more like the prefabs you can find in the store, but better and more optimized. As you can imagine, they’re typically made from soft materials like silicone or cork, and great for people with foot deformities, diabetes, or arthritis.
Finding the Right Match
We’ve said it already a couple times in this blog, but we’ll say it again—because orthotics can come in so many shapes and styles to treat so many different conditions, it’s important that you have somebody trained help you make the appropriate selection.
The right set of orthotics—even in some cases prefabricated ones—can make a world of difference for your feet, legs, and back. The wrong ones, at best, will only help slightly. They might even make things feel worse.
The team at Foot & Ankle Surgical Associates can help you find the orthotics you need. We even carry a line of fashionable shoes and sandals with orthotic-like features built right in, which may be appropriate for your feet.
With five locations in and around Olympia and Tacoma, we are already in your neighborhood. To schedule an appointment at one of our clinics, please call (360) 754-3338 today.