What are Orthotics?

Orthotics are shoe inserts that are designed to correct an irregular, or abnormal, walking pattern. Orthotics are not solely “arch supports,” although some people use those words to describe them. They perform functions that make walking, running, and standing more comfortable and efficient by slightly altering the angles at which the foot strikes a walking or running surface.

Podiatric doctors prescribe orthotics as a conservative approach to many foot problems or as a method of control after certain types of foot surgery. Orthotic use is a highly successful, practical treatment form.

Orthotics take various forms and are constructed of various materials. All are concerned with improving foot function and minimizing stress forces that could ultimately cause foot deformity and pain.

Foot orthotics fall into three broad categories: those that are primarily protective in nature, those that primarily attempt to change foot function, and those that combine functional control and protection.

Rigid Orthotics

The so-called rigid orthotic device, designed to control function, may be made of a firm material such as carbon fiber or plastic and is used primarily for walking or dress shoes. These orthotics are generally fabricated from a plaster of paris mold of each foot. The finished device usually extends along the sole of the heel to the ball or toes of the foot. It is worn mostly in closed shoes with a heel height under two inches tall. Very little alteration in shoe size is necessary because of the nature of the materials involved.

Rigid orthotics are mainly designed to control motion in the two major foot joints that lie directly below the ankle joint. These devices do not change shape, are long lasting, and are usually difficult to break. Aches, strains, and pains in the legs, thighs, and lower back may be due to abnormal function of the foot, or a slight difference in the length of the legs. In such cases, orthotics may improve or eliminate these symptoms entirely, which may seem only remotely connected to foot function.

Soft Orthotics

The second, or soft, orthotic device helps to increase balance, absorb shock, and relieve pressure from uncomfortable or sore spots. This type of device is usually constructed of soft, compressible materials, and may be molded by the movement of the foot in walking or fashioned over a plaster impression of the foot. Also worn against the sole of the foot, the device usually extends from the heel past the ball of the foot to include the toes.

The advantage of any soft orthotic device is that it can be easily adjusted to changing weight-bearing forces. The disadvantage is that it must be periodically replaced or refurbished. It is particularly effective for arthritic and grossly deformed feet where there is a loss of protective fatty tissue on the side of the foot. This type of device is also widely used in the care of the diabetic foot. Because of its compressible characteristic, the soft orthotic is usually bulkier and may well require extra room in shoes or prescription footwear.

Semi-Rigid Orthotics

The third type of orthotic device (semi-rigid) provides for dynamic balance of the foot while walking or participating in sports. This orthotic aids the athlete. Each sport has its own respective demands and each sport orthotic needs to be constructed appropriately with the sport and the athlete taken into consideration. Through proper functions, this functional dynamic orthotic helps guide the foot, allowing the muscles and tendons to perform more efficiently. The classic, semi-rigid orthotic is constructed of layers of soft material and reinforced with more rigid materials.

Orthotics for Children

In the treatment of children with foot deformities, orthotic devices are efective. Most podiatric specialists recommend that children with such deformities be placed in orthotics soon after they start walking, to stabilize the foot. The devices can usually be placed directly into a standard or athletic shoe.

Commonly, the orthotics need to be replaced or changed when the child’s foot has grown two sizes bigger. Different types of orthotics may be neccessary as the child’s foot develops and changes shape.

Depending on the seriousness of the deformity and how soon correction is addressed, the lengeth of time a child needs orthotics varies greatly.

Other Types of Orthotics

Various other orthotics may be used for multidirectional sports or edge-control sports by casting the foot within the ice skate boot, ski boot, or inline skate boot. Combinations of soft material and semi-flexible material to accommodate painful areas are utilized for specific foot and ankle problems.

Research shows that back problems frequently can be traced back to a foot imbalance. It is important for your podiatrist to evaluate the lower extremity as a whole in order to provide for appropriate orthotic control for foot problems.

Orthotic Tips

  • Wear shoes and footwear that work well with your orthotics.
  • Whenever you plan to purchase a new pair shoes, bring your orthotics with you.
  • Wear stockings or socks similar to those that you plan on wearing when you shop for new shoes or footwear.
  • Return to your podiatric physician as directed for follow-up evaluations of the functioning of your orthotics. Making certain that your feet and orthotics are functioning properly together is very important.