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updated:
October 10, 2022
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Eddie Zepeda

What Are Orthotics? a Complete Guide to Custom Orthotics

Athletic Orthotics

Orthotics are prescription medical devices worn inside your shoes. They’re designed to help improve biomechanical foot issues with how you walk, stand, and run. Orthotics can also help with foot pain stemming from plantar fasciitis, bursitis, arthritis, and diabetes. When it comes to finding orthotics for you and your ailments, not all are created equally. We’re here to help you understand the various custom orthotics solutions available to you.

What Are Orthotics?

If you’re new to the world of orthotics, you might be wondering “what do orthotics do?” or “what are custom orthotics?”. We’re here to help!

There are two types of foot support from which you can choose. Inserts are available in-store without a prescription. Typically, they’re made from materials such as plastic, foam, or gel, and they fit inside the shoe for extra cushion and support. Despite the fact that inserts aren’t custom, they are still helpful in some situations.

Orthotics require a prescription and are worn inside the shoes to correct foot pain that comes from issues such as bursitis, arthritis, arthritis, etc.

Conditions that Orthotics Can Treat

Wearing orthotics can help improve a variety of medical conditions such as:

  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can result in discomfort that orthotics can improve.
  • Injuries: Those who have experienced trauma in their feet and ankles could require additional support through orthotics. 
  • Heel spurs: This occurs when there is excess bone growth on the bottom or back of the heel. Orthotics help support the foot and minimize inflammation.
  • High arches: Those with high arches can put extra stress on foot muscles. Orthotics can prevent the feet from rolling inwards or outwards.
  • Diabetes: Those with diabetes can lose sensation in the feet, a condition called diabetic neuropathy. Orthotics improve this stress that can lead to foot ulcers.
  • Flat feet: Orthotics can improve how the foot is positioned. 
  • Bunions: Orthotics with a wide toe box can lessen the pressure on the big toe.
  • Back pain: Poor foot positioning is improved with orthotics which can reduce back pain.
  • Hammer toes: This often results from bunions, and orthotics can provide more support.
  • Plantar fasciitis: Doctors sometimes recommend orthotics for additional support.

Custom Orthotics vs Store Bought

When it comes to how to choose orthotics, you’ll see that there are two different types: custom orthotics and store-bought orthotics. You might be wondering, are custom orthotics worth it? It depends on your specific scenario, but for many people, they are well worth the investment.

Custom orthotics are made from raw materials and a 3-D model of your feet. They’re built from scratch to accommodate your needs. The majority of orthotics (with the exception of runner’s orthotics that are made from a combination of cork and leather) are made from rigid or semi-rigid plastic or fiberglass.

The main role of orthotics is to help correct the improper alignment of the joints, bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your feet and ankles to reduce pain and discomfort. The pain could stem from musculoskeletal abnormalities, age-related ailments, genetics, or constantly wearing shoes that don’t fit properly.

The Benefits of Wearing Custom Orthotics

what do orthotics do

Custom orthotics, including custom pediatric orthotics, come with an array of benefits. Not only are they helpful in treating structural and functional conditions in the feet, but they can help prevent further issues from developing. Orthotics work by supporting the structures of the feet and improving the natural biomechanics of our movements.

“Biomechanics” refers to how we move our joints and muscles. Think of the body as a machine composed of many components that work together. Each component such as tendons, joints, muscles, and ligaments, works together. If one component becomes compromised, it impacts the others. This can have an impact on the “machine” that is our body.

Biomechanics significantly impacts how we use our feet. If we have abnormal biomechanics, it can result in a muscle imbalance of the feet, resulting in different foot conditions. On the opposite approach, if you have many foot issues, it can lead to abnormalities in your biomechanics. Correcting these issues allows us to use our muscles how they were intended to be used, helping to reduce pain and the risk of developing foot issues.

What Are the Types of Custom Orthotics for Feet? 

There are many types of custom orthotics from which you can choose. From the type of material that’s used to choosing different orthotics for different activities, you’ll see that there is a wide range of options. Doctors will work with you to write the necessary prescription for your orthotics based on your symptoms and overall condition.

All of the materials can be customized and ordered to the specifications of your clinician. How much volume the orthotics take up in your shoe is also by design; “high volume” orthotics take up more space than “low volume” orthotics.

Some orthotic options are full-shoe inserts that are similar to insoles found in athletic shoes. There are other smaller heel orthotics that slip into the back of the shoe. If you need ankle support, ankle-foot orthotics are an option.

Here are some different types of custom orthotics to consider:

  • Custom sports orthotics: These are designed for both recreational activities and specific sports. Examples include ankle orthotics, AFO orthotics, spinal orthosis, high arches orthotics, KAFO orthosis, knee orthotics, and orthotics for feet.
  • Functional orthotics: These are made to help improve your natural gait and stance, improving foot aches and pains, as well as pain, felt in the thighs and lower back. They’re designed to improve your balance and help slow the progression of foot deformities or muscle imbalances. Functional orthotics are usually made from carbon fiber or plastic, and they’re best used in walking shoes or closed-toed dress shoes. 
  • Accommodative orthotics: This is another type of custom orthotics that can help accommodate existing deformities or fat pad losses that functional orthotics cannot improve. This type of device is designed to help those with rigid joints or even arthritis. They are usually softer and help to redistribute the pressure that can result in corns, heel fissures, or painful calluses. As the name suggests, accommodative orthotics are usually made from compression materials to provide additional cushion to reduce pressure. 

Finding the right orthopedic shoe insert is best accomplished with the help of a doctor. In some cases, orthotics can be used with other shoe inserts, braces, or a special type of taping called kinesiology taping to help reduce pain. 

How Podiatrists Can Help Determine Your Orthotic Needs

do custom orthotics really work

How find the right orthotics starts with scheduling an appointment with a doctor, most likely a podiatrist who specializes in foot conditions. He or she will likely ask you a few questions to better understand your symptoms and when they first started. They will also ask what activities make your symptoms worse and which make them better. From there, he or she will conduct a physical exam and look for any deformities or abnormalities.

Generally speaking, here are some signs you might need orthotics:

  • You have worn-out shoes.
  • You stand for over 5 hours daily.
  • You don’t have an arch or you have a high arch.
  • You have severe foot or heel pain.
  • You’ve recently had an injury on a lower limb.

The Best Way to Wear Foot Orthotics

When you’re wearing orthotics for the first time, you can expect there to be a break-in period. It usually takes your body 2-3 weeks to adjust to wearing orthotics, and you can follow the below simple rules to help ease your transition:

  • You’ll want to wear your inserts 2-3 times per day to start.
  • On the first day, wear your inserts for 30 minutes every time you wear them.
  • Over time, extend how long you wear them by 15-30 minutes until you can comfortably wear them throughout your daily activities.

As soon as your feet become sore and tired, you can take out your orthotics and rest your feet for a few hours before wearing them again. Rest assured this is normal during the break-in period. 

Once the 3-week period is over and your feet are continuing to hurt from your orthotics, they might need to be adjusted. Don’t get discouraged, this is a normal part of the process and it could take some time to find the perfect fit. 

What Shoes Are Suitable for Custom Orthotics?

wearing orthotics

There’s a long list of shoes that orthotics fit in so no matter what you’re doing, you can stay comfortable and pain-free. We’ve outlined many of your options below. 

  • Sneakers: Your favorite sneakers can accommodate a medium-sized orthotic that has moderate control.
  • High heels: As you can imagine, orthotics in high heels need to be low-profile, thin, and narrow.
  • Dress shoes: Similar to orthotics for high heels, orthotics for dress shoes need to be thin, narrow, and short. 
  • Hiking boots: This is a high-volume shoe that can accommodate a high-volume orthotic.
  • Ski boots: There are orthotics designed specifically for ski boots and they are both durable and have a low volume.
  • Hockey skates: Hockey skates can also accommodate orthotics that are thin and durable to help with foot and ankle control while skating. 

Tips for Caring for Your Orthotics

Now that you’ve made the investment into your orthotics, you’ll want to keep them in prime condition. Most orthotics are usable for anywhere from 1-4 years depending on how often you wear them, and some can last even longer. 

In most cases, custom orthotics can be refurbished and reworked, so if they’re getting old, don’t throw them away! You’ll likely be able to get additional wear from them without spending money on a new pair.

Here are some best practices for keeping your orthotics in good shape:

  • Don’t put your foot inserts into a washing machine or dryer to clean them. Instead, wipe them with a damp rag and mild dish soap. Make sure to wipe them down with a dry cloth and let them air out before placing them in your shoes.
  • Never leave them in a hot vehicle.
  • Always wear socks with your orthotics to keep the top from wearing prematurely. 
  • If your orthotics get wet, make sure to remove them and wipe them down. They should be fully dried before placing them back into your shoes. 

Tips for Choosing Your Orthotics

shoes that orthotics fit in

How to choose orthotics depends on your activity level and the type of shoes that you’ll be wearing. For example, if you’re trying on new shoes or boots, take your orthotics with you. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • Make sure that the new shoes have removable insoles so you can insert your custom orthotics.
  • When trying the shoes on, take the footbeds out so you can walk around the store in your orthotics.
  • It’s normal for orthotics to take up more room inside of your shoe compared with the original insoles. As a result, you might need shoes with a wider toe box to allow for extra room.
  • Wearing lace-up boots or shoes is common with orthotics as they can easily be adjusted.

Do Custom Orthotics Really Work?

Are custom orthotics worth it? Now that you know more about how custom orthotics work, you might be wondering if they’re worth it. They are not a universal solution for those suffering from foot and ankle ailments. How effective orthotics are depends on who is making them, how often they’re worn, the doctor’s prescription, and the shoes in which they’re worn. Many studies suggest that well-fitting orthotics that are properly worn can effectively treat foot and ankle problems.

How Much Do Custom Orthotics Cost?

Orthotics are more expensive than inserts but they come with a medical evaluation, a custom fit, and quality materials that are designed to last. As these are prescription medical devices, it’s possible that your insurance will cover the cost. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re suffering from foot and ankle pain, it’s worth a discussion with your doctor about whether custom orthotics are a good solution. If you’re looking for additional information and guidance on this topic, your local New Mexico prosthetics provider is here to help! Contact us today for an initial consultation!

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If you have questions or you are ready to talk about prosthetic options, feel free to schedule a consultation at our clinic.

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