Orthotics are products that are gaining popularity in the athletic community. These shoe inserts are available over-the-counter or prescribed by an orthopedic doctor. They claim to align your feet properly and help prevent injuries. But natural health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola says that even if they can theoretically be helpful as a short-term method of preventing injury, there is little evidence that orthotics really work.
Shoe Inserts May or May Not Work for You
By 2015, the orthopedic orthotics market is expected to grow to nearly $5 billion globally, with every prescription pair of top high-quality orthotics costing as much as $500 or more. But experts don’t agree on whether or not orthotics are worth using.
Dr. Benno M. Nigg, a professor of biomechanics and co-director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Calgary in Alberta, said that there’s no way to predict the effect of orthotics.
Dr. Nigg says:
“Consider, for example, an insert that pushes the foot away from a pronated position, or rotated excessively outward. You might think it would have the same effect on everyone who pronates, but it does not. One person might respond by increasing the stress on the outside of the foot, another on the inside. Another might not respond at all, unconsciously correcting the orthotics’ correction. That’s the first problem we have. If you do something to a shoe, different people will react differently.”
Shoe inserts also claim to help treat plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of the ligament that runs along the sole of your foot — or stress fractures. However, these claims lack research needed to make any solid recommendations.
“The end result seems to be the old adage ‘if the shoe fits, wear it’. If you’re having pain due to an activity or injury, and it improves with an orthotic, it may be a good choice for you. That said, you may actually be able to get an even better fit, and less pain and injury, by opting for less correction instead of more,” adds Dr. Mercola.
Going Barefoot is Still Your Best Choice
Human feet were designed to work best without shoes. Surrounding them with extra protection and padding causes your foot muscles to be used incorrectly. Adding prescription and over-the-counter orthotics may affect the workings even more.
Research conducted by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, revealed that running barefoot lessens the chances of getting ankle sprains and chronic injuries like plantar fasciitis. His further research into the topic also showed that:
- In developing countries where most people are habitually barefooted, running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare.
- Where barefoot and shoe-wearing populations co-exist, like in Haiti, instances of injury to the lower extremity are substantially higher in the latter.
- Ankle sprain, a common sports injury, is increased with footwear use. Wearing footwear either decreases awareness of your foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle when you stumble.
- Plantar fasciitis rarely occurs in barefoot populations.
- Running barefoot reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent.
However, going barefoot raises a few concerns, like stepping on sharp objects or scratching your skin. But if properly done, walking or running barefoot can be safe.
A Better Alternative to Orthotics
It’s not conclusive whether shoe inserts will help or harm your natural gait. Dr. Mercola says that you should listen to your body—if you feel comfortable wearing orthotics, continue using them. But if you experience minor aches and pains, try Vibram Five Finger shoes. These shoes have no arch support and have a slot for each of your toes. Dr. Mercola says they are superior to most shoes, providing a modern day equivalent to going barefoot for a natural, pain-free gait.
However, keep in mind that Vibrams are insulating shoes, meaning you will not be grounded when walking outdoors. Vibrams can also worsen fungal infections in your toenails because they create a micro environment ideal for fungal growth.