Your Guide to Arch Supports, Insoles, and Orthotics

When feet hurt, walkers usually seek immediate relief. The first step is to get the right shoes, but the answer to resolving pain may need to be taken be a step further by focusing on insoles, arch supports, and orthotics. Consulting a foot health specialist can bring a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan for your pain.

Woman holding orthopedic insole next to her foot
ChesiireCat / Getty Images

What to Look For

If you're dealing with foot pain, it's likely you need to look beyond your shoe style and the way it fits. Evaluate the following aspects of your shoes to determine if you need to make any changes or additions:

  • Arch support: Walking shoes and running shoes often do not offer sufficient arch support. If you're unsure about your selection, ask a sales associate for assistance when shopping for new shoes.
  • Cushioning: Depending on the style, shoes provide more or less cushioning. Look for a cushioned style to relieve sore feet.
  • Motion control: Some shoes provide correction for overpronation with motion control elements—dual-density foam in the sole so that the foot does not over-rotate.
  • Age: Contrary to common belief, insoles and inserts do not extend shoe life; rather, it is the unseen midsole of the shoe that breaks down by 500 miles, leaving your foot without proper support. Adding a new insole will not correct this problem.

Conditions Shoe Inserts May Alleviate

Shoe inserts are often designed with certain conditions in mind, which is why it can be helpful to consult a foot specialist for a specific recommendation. Conditions that often benefit from shoe inserts include:

  • Arch strain and pain
  • Heel pain
  • Ball of foot pain (metatarsalgia)
  • Weak ankles
  • Crooked toes and corns
  • Calluses
  • Knee pain
  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Overpronation
  • Shin splints
  • Plantar fasciitis

Guide to Insoles

One of the first methods walkers use to alleviate foot pain is insoles. Over-the-counter insoles are available in many varieties. The insoles that come with athletic shoes generally don't provide shock absorption or arch support. Remove the insole that came with the shoe to replace it with your chosen insole.

  • Cushioning and shock-absorbing insoles: Cushioning is provided by foam, gel, or other materials. This extra cushioning can provide shock relief in shoes that have little cushioning. Extra cushioning is also needed as people age and the fat pad at the bottom of the foot thins.
  • Orthotic insoles: Some insoles are constructed to mold themselves to your foot upon wear. While these are usually labeled as orthotics, they differ from custom orthotics, which are created for the individual to correct foot and walking problems. The ready-made orthotic insoles are less expensive than custom orthotics, but may not afford the same degree of relief. These ready-made orthotics provide arch support and some degree of gait correction and cushioning.

Who Can Benefit From Insoles?

Most walkers will feel more comfortable wearing a shock-absorbing insole, especially in shoes or boots that have little cushioning. If your feet feel generally tired and a little sore after walking, adding an insole may provide relief. However, do not try to extend the life of the shoe by adding an insole. Shoes should still be replaced every 500 miles to help avoid injury.

Shoe Insole Products

The following are a few examples of shoe insole products that are widely available for purchase:

Guide to Arch Supports

Athletic shoes generally don't provide arch support. Sometimes the shoe is constructed to give the feeling of arch support, but it often isn't sufficient. People with high arches may have foot pain from walking or running in shoes without enough arch support. A ready-made arch support (such as Good Feet Arch Supporting Orthotics) can give relief and comfort. Other solutions include:

  • Arch/metatarsal cushions: Cushions typically slip in the shoe only under the arch.
  • Arch support insoles: Many designs of cushioned insoles include arch support.
  • Orthotic arch supports: Some ready-made products conform to your foot shape upon wear, providing a better arch support fit.

Who Can Benefit From Arch Supports?

Walkers with high arches may be more prone to plantar fasciitis, which may be prevented by wearing arch-supporting products.

Walkers who have lower arches, however, should take care not to wear high arch supports as they may prove uncomfortable.

Guide to Orthotics

Orthotics are custom-made shoe inserts that correct gait problems, provide foot support, relieve pressure on painful areas of the foot, and provide motion control.

Over-the-counter, ready-made products are also available. Heel cups, insoles, and arch supports may call themselves orthotics and provide some degree of relief, but a custom orthotic provides individual correction.

  • Functional orthotics: These are wedges that are fashioned into the orthotic insert to adjust the heel or forefoot to correct defects in the arch such as overpronation (when the arch flattens and allows the foot to roll too far inward) or supination (when the arch is too high and the foot rolls too far outward). This motion can cause strain on joints and muscles throughout the leg, hip, and back, in addition to the foot, along with heel pain and plantar fasciitis. While many athletic shoes correct for overpronation, a custom orthotic will make a precise correction.
  • Weight-dispersive or accommodative orthotics: These products have padding to relieve pain and pressure on the metatarsal heads, sesamoid bones, collapsed tarsal bones, sores, and inflamed toes.
  • Supportive orthotics: These are arch supports that can treat problems of the plantar arch.

How Orthotics Are Made

Orthotics may be prescribed by health care professionals such as medical doctors, podiatrists, and chiropractors. The fitting is done by a pedorthist at an orthotics lab. Fittings are best performed by taking a plaster cast of the foot at rest in its "ideal neutral position." The orthotic is then constructed to support that foot in that position. Information in the prescription given by the podiatrist or other health care provider also tells the pedorthist what kind of corrections are needed. Other methods to measure the feet for orthotics such as a foam impression, tracings, or computer measurement have drawbacks.

Each pair of orthotics usually costs between $150 and $400. You may prefer different styles for dress shoes, sports shoes, and casual shoes.

Alternatives to Orthotics, Insoles, and Arch Support

A podiatrist or other foot expert may use taping, padding, and other simple techniques to correct foot problems. If you are wondering about magnetic insoles, those have not been proven to be more effective than any other insoles.

Foot Experts to Consult

People with foot pain may seek assistance from a variety of health care providers. Often the first stop is a referral from a primary care physician to a foot expert.

Podiatrist

Podiatrists are licensed medical professionals, with the designation of DPM, or doctor of podiatric medicine. They apply for entry to a school of podiatric medicine after receiving a bachelor's degree, then attend four years of classroom and clinical education and a year or more of residency. The American Podiatric Medical Association has a member locator.

Orthopedic Medicine Physician

An orthopedic surgeon or orthopedist is a physician specializing in orthopedic medicine who completed their bachelor's degree and medical school, then up to five years of orthopedic residency, as well as further specialization in surgery. The American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society has a member locator that can help you find an expert provider.

Chiropractor

Chiropractors are licensed medical professionals who believe and practice the principles of chiropractic medicine—that manipulation of the spine can relieve many diseases. They may act as primary care providers and prescribe orthotics.

Pedorthist

Pedorthists design, fabricate, fit, construct, and modify shoes and foot orthotic devices upon prescription by a physician. They are board-certified professionals.

Physical Therapist or Kinesiotherapist

Physical therapy or kinesiotherapy may be prescribed for rehabilitation from injury or treatment of heel spurs, bursitis, plantar fasciitis, bunions, corns, and calluses. These professionals use a variety of treatments to relieve pain and swelling and increase range of motion. They can also recommend ongoing exercises to strengthen muscles and joints and prevent further injury. Kinesiotherapists, in particular, use therapeutic exercise and education.

Before spending an arm and a leg on your feet for products that may not work, consider an appointment with a foot expert to have the pain and problem fully diagnosed.

A Word From Verywell

If you've been dealing with chronic foot pain, you're best off consulting with an expert to make sure you're not dealing with a more serious issue that could require more intensive treatment. From there, you can discuss your best path forward and narrow down potential solutions before going shopping.

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