We Asked a Physiotherapist to Compare Drugstore vs. Custom Orthotics

Kaitlynn BoninAsk a Clinician, Foot pain, Video

Not sure if custom orthotics are really worth it? pt Health physiotherapist Paul Love, who has been practicing for 27 years, explains the difference between drugstore orthotics (also called over-the-counter or off-the-shelf orthotics, Dr. Scholl’s, or shoe inserts) and custom-made orthotics.

Orthotics are one of the cheapest and easiest preventative measures for correcting foot problems. They can help reduce and eliminate shin splints, backaches and unhealthy pressure on joints and ligaments that cause pain. Orthotics will also prevent foot related disorders which can lead to a whole host of other problems in the body. All orthotics claim this – but which kind is telling the truth?

Drugstore (off-the-shelf) Orthotics
People will often buy a pair of off-the-shelf orthotics hoping to find relief from foot or knee pain. Paul says they’re moving in the right direction because they knew they needed something to wear in their shoe. However, while drugstore orthotics might make your shoe feel more comfortable, they are too soft to provide any real support.

Paul says, “They look pretty neat. They’ve got a nice arch, they’re soft and cushy. They’re going to feel really comfortable in your shoe, and they might help you for a week or two. But because the material is so soft and pliable, this material is going to fatigue very quickly, and then it’s just an insert in your shoe that really doesn’t do much.”

Try pushing down on them with your fingers. You’ll find you can easily flatten them. Paul asks, “how much support do you think you’re going to get in your arch where you’re putting your entire body weight on them? The answer is little or none. So, in the beginning, they might feel comfortable but in the long run, they’re not doing the job they promised you.” Even though they’re less expensive, off-the-shelf orthotics wear out quicker and don’t give the support and correction you’re looking for. Luckily, most extended health benefit plans cover custom orthotics.

Custom Orthotics
Custom orthotics are made from a three-dimensional model of your foot specifically tailored to your needs and condition. They can be made by large companies, or by practitioners in their own clinics. The materials used are completely different from the soft, off-the-shelf versions. Custom-made orthotics are semi-rigid so they can support your weight when you’re walking. Because of this, they will “spring back up and correct the biomechanics in your feet, thereby alleviating the stresses on the soft tissues in the bones from your feet all the way up into your back,” Paul explains. A good way to remember it is:

Soft = no support, wears down faster

Semi-rigid = more support, longer lasting

What Makes a Good Orthotic?
Paul suggests one of the best ways to evaluate the quality of custom-made orthotics is to talk to your friends who wear orthotics. “Ask them where they got their orthotics, and do they help with the problem.” He also recommends asking your practitioner the following questions:

  • Who makes the orthotics?
  • What materials are used?
  • How long will they work for me?

If you wear orthotics every day, you can get a new pair after a year and a half to two years. If you don’t wear them as often, they will last for several years. Do you have growing children? Not to worry. Paul notes that custom-made orthotics can last children one to two years as well because the supportive part of the orthotic covers the foot bones that grow more slowly.

Should I Pay More?
You don’t have to. Most health care plans pay 80-100% for health care products like orthotics, making them an affordable choice. Paul puts it like this: “are they really worth the big jump in price from the off-the-shelf ones to the custom ones? In a lot of cases, they are because the materials used are different. That’s why you’re paying the difference in the price.”

Contact a pt Health physiotherapist and feel the difference for yourself.


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