Sock Doc’s View on Orthotics: Don’t Leave Home Wearing Them

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 10.09.40 AM

It’s been well over a year since I’ve discussed orthotics.

Orthotics, just like stretching, is an emotional and somewhat controversial topic because so many believe in their effectiveness for injury treatment and prevention. Others, such as myself, feel as though they either create, provoke, or hide a true problem.

In an earlier article, “Are Orthotics Ever Really Necessary?” I discuss how orthotics are never truly fixing any problem. They support, rather than correct, dysfunction. They also dampen your senses as your feet are no longer allowed to move as unrestricted as they should. Your sense of body position (proprioception), and sensory feedback from your feet to your nervous system (kinesthetic sense), are dampened.

Yes, often they diminish and even eliminate pain, which is why so many claim they are successful. Perhaps you’ve had success with orthotics, or not; or maybe you are in the foot/footwear business and make hundreds or thousands of pairs of orthotics a year for your patients as some doctors who (unhappily) contact me have. Either way, I have decided to look through the eyes of these pro-orthotics people, and try to see what they see. Okay, it’s really just one Sock Doc eye; the other is certainly going to look away.

Argument Number One: Orthotics Relieve or Eliminate Pain

Pain is the number one reason someone is going to receive a pair of orthotics, most often from a podiatrist or chiropractor. Although most orthotic wearers suffer from foot pain (such as plantar fasciitis), others are using them for knee, hip, or even back pain. Do they help with pain? If they’re made correctly then yes – absolutely. There are many different types of orthotics as well as ways orthotics are made today so some of this success is going to be dependent on the skill and knowledge of the prescriber. Also, other therapies employed at the time the orthotics are prescribed often help with symptoms. Some prescribers, such as chiropractors, may adjust the bones of the ankle and foot before fitting the patient for an orthotic. This of course can also lead to greater success as the foot is in a more balanced and corrected state before support is rendered.

Though orthotics can be very effective in removing pain, (and I’m all for pain removal), this support-system method of treatment often is simply masking the symptoms and not addressing the problem. Say you have plantar fasciitis, for example. The fascia running along the bottom of your foot is too tight, torn, or even degenerated, and it’s causing pain. Your foot is not moving correctly and most often this is from a problem (weakness) in the tibialis posterior muscle. The main arch of the foot is not supported correctly, proper pronation and supination of the foot is not occurring, and the fascia is working too hard to stabilize the foot. The orthotic will often help stabilize the foot, but it will not correct the problem because it can not correct the weakness of the tibialis posterior. Just as if your wrist hurts because of a problem in the forearm, bracing your wrist is not going to correct your forearm. Masking the pain is not a correction, though this is often the answer in many types of medicine which looks for a quick and easy solution to a symptom. Orthotics for pain and dysfunction are like aspirin in your footwear.

Sure there are plenty of studies to say orthotics are “effective”. Unfortunately most of them are very short-term studies and they only look at one parameter for success – the removal of pain. They don’t ask or understand that although the [foot] pain may be reduced or eliminated, there is now pain in the knee, back, or perhaps shoulder from the new, different, and altered mechanics.

Let’s look at a few of the studies which support (haha) the use of orthotics.

1.      Saxena & Haddad found that of 102 patients with patellofemoral pain syndrome, 76.5% improved and 2% were pain-free. 2% is not a huge success, and the 76.5% is left for interpretation as to what is “improved”. There were also other treatments used in this study and the age range was huge – 12 to 87 years old.
2.      Shih et al found that a wedged insole was useful for preventing or reducing painful knee or foot symptoms in runners with a pronated foot. This study was only one 60-minute test and it’s unclear what a “pronated” foot is. After all, pronation is normal.
3.      Gross et al report great success with orthotics in several symptoms, and this study is often cited by orthotic proponents. However, the study was a questionnaire given to 500 runners (262 responded). That’s not really a study, and as mentioned, it is only asking about the symptoms they were given the orthotic for.
4.      Chang et al found that running injuries were related to training duration and use of orthotics. But just like above it was a questionnaire study of over 1000 runners (893 responded) and there is no indication between the training and orthotics.
5.      Gross et al, (not the same as previous), found a 75% reduction in disability rating and a 66% reduction in pain with plantar fasciitis. There were only fifteen subjects, they looked at their 100 meter walk times (not very far) and the orthotics were only worn for 12-17 days.

Argument Number Two: Orthotics Improve Joint Mechanics

So do orthotics simply support dysfunction as I have stated previously or do they actually correct dysfunction? Well, that answer depends partly on what you interpret healthy joint mechanics to be. One study notes less strain in the foot with orthotics and a possible prevention for a stress injury to the second metatarsal (Meardon et al, 2009). The big what if here, though, is that the subjects couldn’t really say too much regarding what they were feeling since they were all dead. The eight cadaver specimens were mounted to a dynamic gait simulator to be analyzed.

Controlling “undesirable motion” is a term touted by orthotic advocates often. They say there is instability in a joint and it must be controlled, thus improving joint mechanics and reducing or eliminating pain. Sure instability isn’t a good thing in a joint, but how do you correct instability by stabilizing a joint with any device? You don’t. You stabilize a joint by correcting the faulty mechanics which are resulting in the unstable area. Actually, one of the best ways to train stability is with instability. This is why balance exercises are so good for stability.

You’re not going to improve stability very much standing on both legs on a flat surface, even if you are barefoot. I like to train stability while barefoot on a thin, uneven log — it’s so unstable; look out joint mechanics! So when a study says that orthotics may “enhance joint mechanoreceptors to detect perturbations” (Guskiewicz and Perrin, 1996), I say that they actually negatively alter these mechanoreceptors. Mechanoreceptors, by the way, are sensory receptors that respond to mechanical stimuli, such as pressure. You want as much healthy sensory stimuli getting to your brain as possible. This is what awakens and vitalizes your nervous system and is accomplished by interacting with your environment.

But there is a fine line between too much and not enough sensory stimulation as well as the source it comes from. So many people are in such sensory overload already from excessive lifestyle stresses that they can’t even walk barefoot because the added mechanoreceptor information and kinesthetic sense excite their nervous system too much, too fast.  So they dampen this system with either conventional footwear or orthotics, and they feel better for it. But dampening the mechanoreceptor activity because of too much other external sensory “noise” is not the way to correct the problem. It’s not much different than calming your nervous system with alcohol at the end of a long, hard day. (Now I can get attacked by linking orthotic use to alcoholism.)

Speaking of movement, orthotics can have such negative effects too. Flexible arch supports have been shown to increase knee varus torque (Franz et al, 2008), and influence medial tibial stress syndrome (Hubbard et al, 2009). So it’s not always good, even when you’re in bad shape.

So yes, for those in a state of overall health distress, there may be improved joint mechanics as well as improved nervous system function with an orthotic compared to without. Even though I never use orthotics as I have other methods for treating such problems, I understand how they can so easily be the “go-to” treatment. If that’s the case, however, then function and health still needs to be addressed. These patients need to have their health and movement problems addressed and properly rehabilitated. They need to learn how to move well again, and not be dependent on their orthotics for so long, as often they are told to wear them for their entire life. The success of the orthotics will eventually run its course. So have a plan to wean out of those braces, (see my other article “Lose Your Shoes”), so you can move with strength, stability, and grace in any environment.


Studies Cited

Saxena and Haddad. The effect of foot orthoses on patellofemoral pain syndrome. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2003 Jul-Aug;93(4):264-71.
Shih YF, Wen YK, Chen WY. Application of wedged foot orthosis effectively reduces pain in runners with pronated foot: a randomized clinical study. Clin Rehabil. 2011 Oct;25(10):913-23
Gross ML, Davlin LB, Evanski PM. Effectiveness of orthotic shoe inserts in the long-distance runner. Am J Sports Med. 1991 Jul-Aug;19(4):409-12.
Chang WL, Shih YF, Chen WY. Running injuries and associated factors in participants of ING Taipei Marathon. Phys Ther Sport. 2012 Aug;13(3):170-4.
Gross MT, Byers JM, Krafft JL, Lackey EJ, Melton KM. The impact of custom semirigid foot orthotics on pain and disability for individuals with plantar fasciitis. J Ortho Sp Phys Ther, 32:149-157, 2002.
Meardon SA, Edwards B, Ward E, Derrick TR.. Effects of custom and semi-custom foot orthotics on second metatarsal bone strain during dynamic gait simulation. Foot Ankle Int. 2009 Oct;30(10):998-1004.
Guskiewicz and Perrin. Effect of orthotics on postural sway following inversion ankle sprain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1996 May;23(5):326-31.
Franz JR, Dicharry J, Riley PO, Jackson K, Wilder RP, Kerrigan DC. The influence of arch supports on knee torques relevant to knee osteoarthritis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 May;40(5):913-7.
Hubbard TJ, Carpenter EM, Cordova ML. Contributing factors to medial tibial stress syndrome: a prospective investigation. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):490-6.

30 Responses to “Sock Doc’s View on Orthotics: Don’t Leave Home Wearing Them”

  1. DS says:

    What about using orthotics or a more supportive shoe temporarily to get over an injury that’s made worse by wearing unstructured shoes?

    As an example, I had nasty achilles tendinitis last fall after some overly aggressive kicks at the end of a series of middle-distance races. I couldn’t wear my usual work shoes (Vivobarefoot Ra’s) because the zero-drop really made the achilles painful.

    So I wore some more structured work shoes, flat-soled, but with a cushy insole and a drop of 12mm or so. They allowed me to walk pain-free. Every few days at first, I’d try the Vivo’s and they’d make the achilles hurt again. So I wore the other shoes for a few months, until the achilles symptoms had healed. Now that I’m over the achilles troubles, I can wear the Vivo’s without incident.

    It seems that if I wore zero-drops and suffered through the pain while aggravating it, I’d have been making the tendons ever more inflamed, slowing or preventing the healing.

    It’s sort of a lesser version of wearing a walker-boot when you’ve got surgically repaired tendons, or a broken ankle. Right?

  2. Sock Doc says:

    Sure DS – that’s a fine way to go about it. You used support during the healing process and once you were fixed up, you’re back to zero-drops. That’s success!

  3. Great research…since no two people or feet are the same custom made foot orthotics will provide better long term benefits catered to the individual than off the shelf orthotics.

  4. Cody R. says:

    just after i turn in my research paper this shows up lol

    i though 5000 words was a lot…but on this subject (minimalism) i could have gone for 10000

    funny how i can show people that wear orthotics this, they’ll still disagree and show me nothing for it lol

  5. Kyle Roberts, C.Ped. says:

    I agree with you, Steve, orthotics are best used in limited situations, as a temporary solution. As a certified pedorthist, I was trained to fix almost every lower extremity injury with custom orthotics. But that is not an evidence based approach. I agree with your approach which is more evidence based, and is also much more natural.

    That is why I recommend minimalist shoes for the bulk of my patients and customers at Revolution Natural Running & Walking Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I also do far less orthotics than i used to, I’d rather stengthen to foot first.

    Minimalist footwear is slow to take off in our area, but we are feverishly promoting it and have seen great results by many, even those who formerly wore hard, rigid plastic orthotics.

    What bugs me is when a patient says that their doctor told them that they should never go barefoot. If they listen to that doctor, their feet are made soft and weak. And it is a longer process to get those deconditioned feet back to full strength and healthy.

  6. Toomoon says:

    I do not understand how you can make this statement: “Speaking of movement, orthotics can have such negative effects too. Flexible arch supports have been shown to… influence medial tibial stress syndrome (Hubbard et al, 2009). So it’s not always good, even when you’re in bad shape”. I wonder if you have actually read the paper by Hubbard.
    What Hubbard’s paper said verbatim is: ‘Prescription orthotics are thought to be very effective when prescribed for MTSS, and it has been shown that athletes report complete relief of MTSS symptoms
    when wearing them (Eickhoff CA, Hossain SA, Slawski DP. Effects of prescribed foot orthoses on medial tibial stress syndrome in collegiate cross country runners. Clin Kinesiol. 2000;54(4):76–80 )
    The Hubbard study at no point suggested, as you assert, that orthoses influence MTSS, because it only looked at the incidence of wear (over 50%) and then made the comment that no everyone achieved complete relief from pain, as shown in the Eickhoff study. Unfortunately, you have manipulated what this study really found.

  7. Phil says:

    Sock doc,

    What kind of treatment would you use for someone with a medially deviated subtalar joint axis, experiencing a long history of increasing medial foot and ankle pain, and worsening rear foot vagus deformity?

    Is there a bare foot treatment approach?

    • Sock Doc says:

      Phil, my treatment approach is very individualized as I go through each muscle of the foot and test each one to determine how well it is functioning and if it is not, then where the problem is coming from. Often with the medial foot pain/rearfoot valgus it’s an issue with the tib posterior, and doesn’t have to be from a complete tear of the muscle or tendon. So often I’ll use specific myofascial release techniques as well as strengthening exercises – barefoot, of course.

  8. Sock Doc says:

    Thanks Simon!

  9. Dawn says:

    What about lifts in shoes for functional leg length discrepancies? I have a runner whose chiro is saying she need to do this to correct lld and accompanying limp post knee surgery. He want her to do 5-7 cm lift??? She currently is in no pain but does have limp and wants to train for a marathon this Fall. Surgery was last November had recovered well but has retained limp when runs.

  10. BarelyFrench says:

    Dear Sock Doc
    I have what I believe is plantar fasciitis and so I have pain each morning and after running. My left foot seems fine but it appears to just be my right foot. It was pointed out to me that my right foot is shorter and that my big toe seems scrunched. I believe this is the muscle/tendon connecting the big toe Extensor hallicus longus being too short which to me an Engineer would make sense that the opposite tendon is being stretched and is therefore in pain. So again it makes sense to me to stretch the short muscle/tendon not the already stretched one. Could this have been exacerbated by the orthotics I was prescribed?

    • BarelyFrench says:

      I have an update.
      In November 2013 I was diagnosed with gout. I radically changed my diet and started hill walking more. In April 2014 I started to get a pain in my right foot in the top part curving into the ankle. The pain was more noticeable on the descent. During a football match it became so painful I stopped playing and after a week of NAIDS decided to go back to my GP to check if it was the gout or something else. He has prescribed volteran for the pain and told me to get some orthotics fitted. I asked if I could have a scan to see if the bone had degenerated but he said it was better to try orthotics first. What should be my next step?

  11. Ted says:

    Please take a look at these orthotics:

    I’ve had mine for 6 months and I’m now able to run for forty minutes, pain free (unlike before) and do feel as if I have more of a natural arch when I walk (I have very flat feet). Their philosophy goes contrary to traditional orthotics/podiatry philosophies.

  12. Paul O'Kane says:

    I always considered myself flat-footed. But I ran quite happily for many years. I gave up maybe 20 years ago. Then I read ‘Born to Run’. Now I would like to get back into running. First thing I did was get a range of minimalist shoes. Now for the first time I find I have Morton’s Toe!! Strangely only painful on my right foot. (I think my gait is quite symmetrical).
    So now the Morton’s Toe pain is much worse than any arch pain I ever had. I can barely walk in flat shoes, never mind run. Any thoughts? I have been experimenting with padding. Made to measure stuff. It gives some relief, but I feel I am cheating nature.
    Limping Paul

  13. Debby Caulfiekd says:

    I followed your advice and threw away my orthotics and started wearing zero drops. My chronic sacroiliac pain (previously treated with cortisone) has been completely resolved and all the years of feet and leg pains are gone. But now that I need to see a podiatrist for a painful hammertoe hiow do I find one who who subcribes to your philosophy. Is there some kind of association they might belong to or what question can I ask to pinpoint their philosophy? Called two offices and was told the doctor only prescribes inserts when needed, but we know what means. Thank you.

  14. Jaswinder says:

    Very nice, interesting and informative article.

    Almost nine years ago I started to have legs and feet pains and I started to use orthotics. Since then I am using orthotics whenever I go for walk.
    But still I have legs and feet pains, due to that I can not do any job. I don’t know what to do and now doctor suggest me to wear orthotics at home too.


  15. Luna says:

    Cool….I need something like these for my aching back.

  16. Phil the Fluter says:

    Having run 32 marathons and had just about every injury to be expected, I wasn’t too worried by a bout of Achilles tendinitis suffered last February. However the so-and so won’t shift and only store bought orthotics provide relief. I do ‘get off’ them for a week or so but any flexing (driving is a problem: no using the toes to depress the accelerator!)
    I’ve been to top medics and even had injections; would love to get back to long distances on the road but, limping home in tears is the likely outcome.
    At 68 perhaps I have to go orthotic or give up?

  17. Tyran says:

    So who should one see to get the problem fixed?
    Physio? I know if I don’t were mine, I get knee and back pains. I don’t want to use them as a crutch anymore. I want to fix the problem!

  18. Bruno says:

    Good information. Lucky me I recently found your website by chance (stumbleupon).
    I have saved it for later!

  19. Tyran says:

    Still no help to my question?

  20. Bob says:

    Hello. I play a lot of soccer and have had knee and shin pain in the past. Going to the orthopedic about 3 years ago, he suggested orthotics as I had flat feet. Since then they have helped immensely elimatung all pain. Now however, I decided to look deeper into the matter and found this article along with various similar ones. I do not want the knee pain to return but am no longer sure if I want to wear the orthotics. I am not a fan of surgery, so what should I do? If I comtinue wearing them will there be negative affects on other parts on my feet that may Inhibit by ability to play?

  21. TyRAN* says:

    It does seem like some people could benefit from orthotics but if the podiatrists had their way they would prescribe orthotics to EVERYBODY. And I never imagined I’d find myself actually asking for a pair.
    I’m only 26 and for a few years now I have been seeing the chiropractor practically every month on the dot to fix my lower spine/hip, which always gets out of place in the same way, no matter what I do. I’m desperate to stop emptying my pockets at the chiro, even if she’s nice, and without treatment people actually notice that it looks like I have one leg longer than the other (I don’t). And of course my muscles spasm and tighten up solid.
    I’ve tried everything that was recommended and some ideas of my own. Treading softly doesn’t help, physio doesn’t help, cushions don’t help, x-rays revealed nothing noticeable. At the end of my rope, the orthotics were actually my idea. I’m noticing a big difference already; the last chiro visit, which I delayed for even longer, was the easiest fix yet, and I’m hoping I can stop going altogether.
    FOR MY CASE, I think even if orthotics aren’t an actual fix to what’s causing my problem, I would much prefer them to the riskier alternative: surgery. My mother suspects this hip issue arises from trauma to my hips as I was being born backwards, even though they tried to correct any issues at that time.

  22. Kelly says:

    I have had orthotics for many years. I first got them in college to help with knee pain when running. I didn’t wear them all the time, just when running. About 4 or 5 years ago, I started having bad foot pain. I was told I have arthritis in one of my metatarsals (I think that’s correct). When I walk barefoot, it’s extremely painful. I can’t go shoeless (orthotic-less) at all, even at home. Is there any hope for getting off the orthotics at this point? I’m only 38 (former gymnast – so lots of impact to those poor metatarsals).

  23. Christof says:

    I wish you had included information on alternative approaches, specific info.

    I have posterior tibial tendinosis and a collapsing right arch. This is causing ankle pain and pain in the arch and heel, a la plantar faciitis. Have had this for 5 years. Tried zero drop shoes for 2 years, and things got worse, not better. So, now moving to orthotics. First pair of customs are causing pain in the right outer leg, knee, hip and glute. Will try one more pair. If those don’t work, I am at a loss at how to address increasing pain and dysfunction in my right foot/leg — and I’m only 48.

  24. Rob says:

    Is periformis syndrome really an ailment.
    I was diagnosed with this 12 years ago. Pain in my left buttock,lower back pain especially whilst standing at the football stadium, and burning feet whilst walking. Orthotics really did help.. But now 3 years on I have 3 degenerated discs, disc protruding,constant pain in my trapeze muscles and the most uncomfortable daily pain in my left rib cage.. Was it worth it? Initially yes, now or long term… NOOO…
    I SHOULD OF LISTENED TO MY SURGEON AND NOT A NEWLY Qualified podiatrist , WHO TOOK 1 year to gain his grade.

  25. Rob says:

    Sorry the above should read for the last 3 years

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *