Three common thoughts lead most people to consider purchasing custom orthotics:
"I was told to get a custom orthotic, and I never considered an over-the-counter option as a possible alternative."
"I believe that a custom orthotic will work better for me since it will be custom-built for my foot."
"I believe that a custom orthotic will last longer and be more durable than an over-the-counter shoe insert."
What many people don't often realize is that in many cases a custom orthotic won't necessarily perform significantly better or last significantly longer than over-the-counter orthotics. In addition, custom orthotics can be very costly, and even with insurance some providers won't cover all of the cost, and some don't cover orthotics at all.
There are still reasons to consider custom foot orthotics, of course, but before you place your order for a pair custom orthotics you may want to think about the following first.
What Are Orthotics?
"Orthotics" is a general term used to describe a device designed to support the foot, ankle, and/or lower leg. Within this wide selection of products are the more specifically-named "foot orthotics," which are designed specifically to provide support for your foot (which we may also call "orthotic insoles," "arch supports," or "arch support insoles").
The Benefits of an Orthotic Insole
Orthotic insoles and inserts, whether custom-made or over-the-counter, can help with several different foot problems.
A good orthotic will help to reduce the pressure on your feet, ankles, knees, and back while walking, standing, or playing sports.
A good orthotic will help to prevent or relieve pain and discomfort caused by common foot issues such as plantar fasciitis, heel pain, and foot fatigue.
A good orthotic will help improve balance and correct biomechanical issues such as overpronation or supination.
A good orthotic will help to improve your gait or walking patterns.
These benefits aren't exclusive to custom orthotics. Any orthotic shoe inserts, whether over-the-counter or custom, will provide these benefits so long as you get the right insole to fit your needs.
Won't A Custom Insole Work Better Than an Over the Counter Insole?
Not necessarily. The way custom orthotics work is fundamentally the same as the way over-the-counter insoles work: They distribute pressure evenly across the foot, and they provide proper support for your heel and arches. Just by doing these two things, your orthotic insole (whether a prescription orthotic or OTC) will provide instant benefits for your feet. Many OTC orthotics also have a lot of science and research that went into their designs, so it's not that OTC insoles are of any less quality, are any less effective, or are any less trustworthy than custom orthotics. Many podiatrists may advise their patients to purchase quality over-the-counter insoles instead of custom orthotics where possible.
The primary benefit of custom orthotics is that they perfectly fit the shape of your feet from day one. When dealing with custom-made orthotics, the orthotic inserts that you receive are designed and produced to fit your specific foot shape. This means that as soon as you place them in your shoe, they'll conform to your foot right away.
Over-the-counter insoles, on the other hand, fall into either "wear-moldable" or "heat-moldable" categories. With a wear-moldable orthotic, you'll wear the shoe insert for a few hours per day over the span of about a week; this helps the insole adapt and conform to the unique shape of your foot. A heat-moldable orthotic works similarly in that you will need it to adapt to the shape of your individual foot over time, except that the process is sped up by heating the shoe inserts before wearing them the first time; heat-moldable insoles can typically be fully worn right after molding.
Why Would I Not Purchase a Custom Orthotic?
The primary issues for most people are simply the hassle and the price of custom orthotics.
If you get your custom orthotics through your doctor's office, your podiatrist will need to perform a thorough evaluation in order to best understand what sort of custom insoles they'll need to produce for you. At the very least, this involves gaining a good understanding of your current concerns, an awareness of how you plan to use your insoles (will you be using them in your work shoes, dress shoes, to play sports, etc.), and a thorough examination of your foot shape. This will help your podiatrist determine the design of the custom orthotic they'll need to order for you.
You can order some custom orthotics online, too. This typically involves being sent a mold kit into which you'll leave an impression of your foot shape. The impressions get sent back to the company, which uses the molds to produce a set of custom orthotics unique to the shape of your feet. You'll need to do some of the legwork here, though, as you'll have to figure out which product model best suits your planned activities and the shoes you plan to use them in; many "online order custom orthotics" offer several different models for different needs and to fit different types of shoes.
In both cases, the wait is normally two to three weeks to receive your new custom orthotics. With custom orthotics that you can order online, the average price at the time of writing is between $150-200 USD. With custom orthotics through your podiatrist, these often run between $300-1000 USD, and you'll need to check with your insurance provider to see how much they would cover towards the final amount.
Why Should I Consider an Over-the-Counter Orthotic?
The biggest two advantages of over-the-counter orthotics (also sometimes called "ready-made" or "mass produced" orthotics) are that they are relatively low cost and that you can almost always get them within a matter of days. The average price of over-the-counter orthotics (again at the time of writing) is between $35-60 USD.
You'll need to do a little research upfront to determine the specific type of orthotic that you'll need, such as finding out your foot arch type to make sure your purchase will be a good fit, thinking about what type of shoe you'll be wearing the orthotics in, and making sure that the orthotics you look at are suitable for your planned activities. To help make this process easier, many retail stores both online and in-person have easy ways to help make this process as simple as possible.
Something else to note is that over-the-counter orthotics also often have a lot of research put into their development and advanced technology included in their design. Many OTC insole companies use foot mappings, usage studies, gait analysis, and even input from podiatrists to produce their designs. Many top OTC insoles are also APMA-accepted, meaning that they have been reviewed by the American Podiatric Medical Association and approved as a product that promotes good foot health.
When Are Custom Orthotics the Better Choice?
Sometimes, you might need custom inserts to better address complicated and complex foot problems, or in a case where the shape of your feet are different from one another. In the case of complicated foot issues, your arch supports may require a unique shape or custom features to fully address all of the underlying causes of your foot pain or discomfort. Similarly, if your feet are two distinctly different shapes (no one's feet are ever identical, so think instead in terms of different arch heights, foot alignment, or shoe sizes), a pair of custom orthotics may better suit your feet individually than an OTC support that might be a good fit for one foot but be unsuitable for the other.
Over-the-counter orthotics work well for most people and are suitable for a wide variety of foot conditions, activities, and needs. However, we almost always recommend seeing your doctor or podiatrist if you are unsure if an OTC arch support is suitable for your feet due to the severity or complexity of any foot pain, if you've tried OTC orthotics and not found any relief, or if you believe that you will need a custom shape or size to suit each individual foot.
Common Misconceptions About Over-the-Counter Orthotics
A custom orthotic isn't necessarily more durable or longer-lasting compared to an over-the-counter orthotic. How durable and long-lasting any shoe insert will be depends on the materials used and the quality of construction, and many OTC insoles use high-quality materials in their design. All insoles, including custom orthotics, will wear out over time.
A custom orthotic isn't necessarily any more rigid than an over-the-counter orthotic. Over-the-counter shoe inserts are available in a variety of rigidities, arch support levels, arch heights, cushioning volumes, and other different features. There are over-the-counter insoles that provide firm support and others that are merely foot cushions with very little support. How much arch support you want (and how rigid it is) is entirely up to you.
Over-the-counter orthotics are available for all foot shapes, from flat feet to high arches, from narrow to wide widths, and everything in between. Many over-the-counter options designate the arch types that they best support, so look for options that best match the shape of your feet.
A Summary of Custom Foot Orthotics vs. Over-the-Counter Orthotics
The primary difference between custom orthotics and over-the-counter orthotics is whether the shoe inserts will arrive already in the shape of your foot or whether they will need to be molded to the shape of your foot through use.
Both custom-made and ready-made orthotics will help to reduce foot pressure, prevent foot issues, provide foot pain relief, provide proper foot and arch support, assist in foot stability and alignment, and reduce the impact of other biomechanical foot issues.
Custom orthotics are designed and produced with your unique foot shape and activities in mind, but they can be somewhat costly and may take several weeks to produce.
Over-the-counter orthotics will need to be either wear-molded or heat-molded to conform to your feet, but they are more cost-effective and more readily available.
Custom foot orthotics are not necessarily "superior" in quality or function. Many over-the-counter orthotics are APMA-accepted, and many have advanced research and technology behind their design.
Custom foot orthotics should be especially considered for complex or complicated foot conditions, extreme foot pain, or unique foot shape needs.
Over-the-counter orthotics come in a wide variety of designs and sizes to suit many different types of feet, needs, and use cases.
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