What’s the Deal with Orthotics?
There are all different types of orthotics depending on your individual needs and budget. When looking at orthotics, consider cost, function and the science of successful orthotics. Orthotics enable your foot to interact better with the ground. Whether it’s a $10 generic insert, “custom selected” drugstore device (about $50), heat molded retail type ($50-$125), “step in custom” casting or “hand casted custom” casting option ($400ish), I hope this message helps clarify some of the science versus hype.
The key function of an orthotic is to help your foot in transitioning from being unloaded to a loaded or loaded to unloaded. In other words, as the foot hits the ground (or loading phase of stride, pedal stroke, etc) it should help your body decelerate (something has to or gravity wins every time). As you step off the ground or unload the foot, it’s supposed to stiffen up, becoming a rigid lever. An orthotic is used to facilitate any impairment in either of these processes. Orthotics are designed to help two actions: shock absorption or creating a more rigid surface to propel back off.
Orthotics are often prescribed as a “band-aid.” When either process doesn’t work well or there’s an “unexplained” pain, orthotics are recommended. Often times the cause isn’t anything related to the way your foot/ ankle works but is instead the way something else in your body isn’t working optimally. For instance, if your butt doesn’t help you slow down as your foot hits the ground, the foot takes a disproportionate (compensated) amount of loading.
Using an orthotic may decrease symptoms (shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee pain, back pain, etc) without doing anything to fix the cause. Down the road, other symptoms WILL come up. Getting to the root cause of the symptoms is critical to avoid recurring injuries and additional compensations. After working on functional strength and patterning to ensure your body is doing its job (something I get to help athletes with everyday. Ya, shameless plug), before paying for a device to mask symptoms is a good idea.
When deciding where to go for orthotics, pay attention to this difference. Anytime you’re asked to “step into or step onto” something to create a mold, your foot will then be in it’s “collapsed, compensated” or loaded foot. If the goal is for the orthotic to help decelerate the loading process, molding it in a compensated position defeats the purpose. It is however, a much cheaper, quicker process to “customizing” an orthotic. This and store bought solutions do work for some people.
I use orthotics in my walking, running and cycling shoes. It wasn’t until I spent $1,000’s and years of other options that I found physical therapists (Longevity Physical Therapy, Mike Vangilder and Brett Bloom) that hand casted my feet in an “unloaded position,” that I realized the benefits and value of orthotics.
I’m happy to explain in further detail if you have any questions. I’ve studied the mechanics extensively, and can send you some journal articles that detail the science of foot biomechanics so you don’t get sold on an unnecessary or underperforming device.
Learn more about orthotics: