At some point, most of us have experienced some level of foot pain. As a result, we may have found ourselves in the pharmacy aisle wandering our way to the world of foot products. There are hundreds of products on the market claiming to alleviate foot pain. How do we know which works best? What is the difference between over-the-counter shoe inserts and custom-molded orthotics?
Shoe inserts are any non-prescription foot supports that are placed into the shoe. Let’s take a look at some of these products available on the market:
Over-the-counter shoe insoles: You will notice over-the-counter insoles made of various materials, including gels, foams and plastics. Most over-the-counter insoles provide only padding and cushioning. They may provide temporary relief, but they usually do not correct the biomechanics of the foot. Also, they can wear out quickly and are best used for short-term use.
Arch supports: As the name implies, this product may provide some support to the arches of the feet. However, arch supports are usually designed for the average foot type. If you have a high arch and tend to supinate (roll outward) while walking or if you are very flat-footed and pronate (roll inward), they may not provide too much benefit. The level of reinforcement an arch support provides depends on how it fits each individual.
Heel cups and foot cushions: Heel pads and cups provide extra cushioning for the heel. They can be especially helpful because the natural fat in our heels may thin as we age. Foot cushions can be used to provide an extra barrier against friction.
This brings us to the custom-molded orthotic. What is a custom-molded orthotic and how does it help ease foot pain?
Custom-molded foot orthotic: This is an individually tailored device placed into the shoe to support, align and correct the function of the foot. Our feet contain 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments — very complex! When shoes do not offer support, tendons and ligaments may strain and we may begin to compensate by altering our gait. Biomechanically, we may no longer walk in a neutral position. This may not only lead to foot problems but may also affect our other joints, including ankles, knees, hips and back. Orthotics are designed specifically for each individual to correct and realign the feet and to provide long-term relief. They are usually made with durable materials that may last for years.
When to choose over-the-counter products versus custom orthotics: If you are just looking for generalized comfort from mild pain or arch discomfort, over-the-counter inserts might just do the trick. Conditions such as plantar fasciitis, bursitis, tendinitis, structural issues and foot ulcers are likely to do better with a custom-molded orthotic and should be evaluated by your podiatrist. Conditions that may affect feet such as diabetes and circulation issues should also be evaluated by a professional. Although over-the-counter products may provide temporary relief, clinical research has shown that prescribed orthotics have been successful in decreasing foot pain and improving overall foot function.