Do Athletes Benefit from Orthotic Shoe Inserts?
Athletes of all levels can experience foot pain, either through injury or simply through damage to the body’s tissues from poor foot structure. These conditions can take an athlete out of their sport, sometimes for long periods of time, while the foot recovers. The interesting thing about many of these conditions, including some forms of injury, is that one can employ measures to help prevent them from occurring in the first place.
The foot and ankle are part of a complex structure that helps move our bodies forward. The foundation of the foot is built upon one’s general foot structure. Foot structure can either be flat, high arched or somewhere in between. While many people fall somewhere in between, many others fall towards one extreme or another. It is when the feet are shaped in either of these less stable extremes that the body is more easily injured. Flat feet are too flexible and lead to tissue strain and fatigue. Higher arched feet poorly absorb the physical shock of walking, leading to tissue stress. From there the tissue in the foot, including tendons, muscles, and ligaments are more apt to become injured through sports, as well as daily normal activity.
Providing a means for improved structural support is the foundation of how foot specialists ultimately treat numerous conditions and keep these conditions from being a recurring issue. Firmly supportive orthotic shoe inserts are used to stabilize flat feet, while softer inserts are used for higher arched feet to provide improved shock absorption. For many foot conditions, these are an important part of how the injured foot is rehabilitated after the damage has healed. Foot injuries can be complex and may require a complex array of treatment options. This includes medical treatment to reduce inflammation, bracing to stabilize the injured foot/ankle, physical therapy to strengthen the damaged tissue, and sometimes surgery to repair more serious tissue damage. Following this healing, support of foot structure is of vital importance to keep the injury from reoccurring. This is true even in those who do not have flat feet or high arches.
Athletes of all levels use custom orthotics and high-quality over-the-counter foot inserts to provide this stability and help reduce the chance of injury. This includes elite professional and Olympic athletes, all the way down to youth levels. While not every athlete will need this kind of support, those with one of the extremes in foot structure or those who have suffered foot pain will strongly benefit from such support. Unfortunately, there are some issues which arise with the use of these inserts. Firstly, over-the-counter inserts can have varying degrees of quality and actual support and may actually not have an optimal fit with some people’s feet. The same can be said about products from retails stores selling speciality ‘orthotics’ which may actually be too hard for what a non-custom device is supposed to be, leading to foot pain and injury. Guidance by a podiatrist in assess the right product for an athlete’s foot structure is of vital importance, and part of this is determining if an athlete will benefit more from an over-the-counter product or a custom orthotic fabricated from a corrected impression of the foot. An additional issue lies in the fact that some sports require specific characteristics to inserts and orthotics, either due to the specific rigours of the sport, or the shoe that the orthotic has to fit into. For example, there is a difference in the functional needs of long-distance runners and basketball players. While there is running involved in both sports, the other types of motion seen in basketball benefit from a slightly different orthotic design. Another example is that in sports that require unique shoe gear, the insert will have to conform to the tighter fit of the interior of that shoe. Ice skates and ski boots both require very specialized orthotics to fit properly. Even soccer cleats, which athletes often prefer on the tighter side, benefit from a narrower insert to accommodate that fit preference.
Orthotics and over-the-counter inserts can provide an important level of foot and ankle injury protection in athletes of all levels. Identifying which feet are at risk, what types of orthotics or inserts will be beneficial, and promptly treating foot and ankle injuries are among the many ways a sports medicine podiatrist can assist the athletic community. Whether an athlete competes in youth sports or is at the professional level, proper support of the foundation of the foot will reduce injury, keep a healed injury from returning, and may even help improve performance in some cases.