Do I Need Shoe Orthotics?

Are your feet aching again? Are you wondering if a simple shoe insert might help? It might. But depending on what the problem is, you could need an "orthotic" instead.

  • Inserts that you can buy in stores without a prescription can provide cushioning and support. They may be made of materials like gel, plastic, or foam. Inserts fit into your shoes. But they're not custom-made for your feet. They can provide arch support or extra cushioning on the heel, around the toes, or for your entire foot. Inserts might make your shoes more comfortable but aren't designed to correct foot problems.
  • Orthotics are different. They are prescription medical devices that you wear inside your shoes to correct biomechanical foot issues such as problems with how you walk, stand, or run. They can also help with foot pain caused by medical conditions such as diabetes, plantar fasciitis, bursitis, and arthritis. Orthotics might even help you avoid surgery to fix flat feet.

Still, you might not need the prescription medical devices. Sometimes, an over-the-counter shoe insert will work just fine. You'll want to ask a podiatrist, a doctor specializing in foot care, for her recommendation.

What Your Podiatrist Will Check

During an appointment, your podiatrist will take 3D images of each foot and do a thorough examination. That might include watching you walk and noting how your feet, ankles, legs, and hips move.

If you need orthotics, your podiatrist will make a precise mold of your feet. This is important to get the right fit. Once the mold is ready, a professional will turn it into rigid or soft orthotics.

Types of Orthotics

Rigid orthotics, or "functional orthotics," are made from materials like plastic or carbon fiber. They're best for walking shoes or dress shoes with closed toes and low heels. This kind of orthotic is designed to ease foot aches and strains as well as pain in the legs, thighs, and lower back that you might feel if your foot doesn't work like it should.

Soft orthotics, or "accommodative orthotics," are made from soft compression materials. They provide cushioning to take the pressure off uncomfortable or sore spots from conditions such as plantar fasciitis or diabetic foot ulcers. Because of their bulk, you might need to wear soft orthotics with prescription footwear.

You can also get special orthotics designed for sporting equipment such as ski boots and ice skates.

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How to Wear Inserts and Orthotics

Both over-the-counter inserts and custom orthotics should fit the contours of your shoe and feel comfortable. A packaged insert that rubs your foot in the store won't get better at home. Prescription orthotics made from molds of your feet should fit quite well. If they don't, tell your podiatrist.

Orthotics cost more than inserts. But when you get orthotics, you're also getting a medical evaluation of your foot problem, a custom fit, and high quality materials that should last for several years with proper care. Since orthotics are prescription medical devices, your insurance company might help cover the cost. Check your plan.

You'll need to schedule a follow up appointment with your podiatrist to make sure your orthotics work well for you. Hopefully you'll find that your feet feel better. If not, be sure to let your podiatrist know.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on May 30, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Podiatric Medical Association: "Shoe Inserts and Prescription Custom Orthotics."

California Podiatric Medical Association: "Orthotics."

Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: "Customized heel pads and soft orthotics to treat heel pain and plantar fasciitis."

Current Opinions in Rheumatology: "Arthritis, Foot Pain & Shoe Wear: Current Musculoskeletal Research on Feet."

Foot & Ankle International: "Results of nonsurgical treatment of stage II posterior tibial tendon dysfunction: a 7- to 10-year followup" and "Foot orthoses for the treatment of plantar fasciitis."

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