Flat feet are a lot more common than you might think.
How common? According to most studies, the incidence rate among the general population is somewhere around 30 percent—almost one out of every three individuals! While many people are simply born with flat feet and never develop natural arches, arches can also “collapse” later in life due to accumulated wear and tear on the tendons and ligaments that hold them up.
The good news is that not everyone with flat feet or low arches experiences pain in their daily activities. Unfortunately, many do. If you have flat feet and also have foot pain, it’s very likely that your lack of arches is a big part of the reason why.
Fortunately, at Advanced Foot & Ankle, we have a lot of experience helping people with flat feet eliminate their pain and restore their mobility. And thanks to custom orthotics, surgery often isn’t necessary!
Why Arches Are Important
If you know anything about construction or architecture, you might know that arches are incredibly stable and strong due to the way they convert load forces into compression forces. This is partially what’s going on in the foot arches as well (especially along the outside edge, or lateral longitudinal arch), although it’s a little more complex than that.
The “high” point of your arch along the inside of the foot (the medial longitudinal arch) is held together by more elastic tissues that are designed to gently flex and pronate when bearing a load. This provides a few key benefits:
● By flexing, the weight and impact force of the step can be “processed” over a much longer period of time—relatively speaking, anyway. This makes arches great shock absorbers that minimize wear and tear on the rest of the feet and legs.
● As you continue forward through your walking motion, the energy stored by the arches gets shifted and eventually released, which helps you transfer weight smoothly, maintain good balance, and even get a little “boost” that propels you forward. In other words, it’s a spring that actually makes walking more energy efficient.
If you have low-to-no arches on your feet, the various other muscles, bones, joints, and soft tissues have to make do on their own and pick up the slack.
You’re also more likely to overpronate, or have your foot roll too far inward when bearing weight. Feet are supposed to pronate slightly (as the arch flexes); but with no arch at all to hold it up, pronation can become excessive, and that can further increase wear and tear on surrounding muscles and joints and increase your risk of sports injuries.
Restoring Arch Support to Your Feet—Without Surgery
If your lack of foot arches is causing you pain, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re either doomed to live with it for the rest of your life or required to undergo surgery to reconstruct your foot. There’s a “middle way” that is going to be the best choice overall for most people: custom orthotics.
We’ve used this analogy before, but it really helps to think of orthotics as kind of like glasses or contacts, except for the feet instead of the eyes.
Just like glasses, orthotics are wearable tools that enable a part of your body to function correctly, despite any flaws it might have. Glasses bend the incoming light in just the right way to focus it correctly on your retina, compensating and correcting for specific deficiencies with the eyeball. Custom orthotics, meanwhile, can augment a flat foot with extra shock absorption, arch support, and even stability control to counteract overpronation.
And just like glasses come in a wide range of prescriptions to meet the specific needs of your eyes, custom orthotics are made from a mold or scan of your feet, and also can be made from many different materials and with many different kinds of features to match your specific needs.
Are Orthotics Right for Me?
Orthotics are usually our first choice for people suffering from flat feet, and are highly effective in a significant majority of cases.
During your appointment, we’ll carefully evaluate your foot structure and lower extremity biomechanics, and talk with you about your symptoms, lifestyle goals, and anything else that would be relevant. From there, we can determine if orthotics (whether prefabricated arch support insoles or fully custom orthotics) would be appropriate for your circumstances.
We may also recommend additional conservative strategies that can help limit your pain, such as various physical therapy exercises, specific shoes you should wear, or activity modifications. In most cases, orthotics alongside some smart lifestyle adjustments will be more than sufficient for mild-to-moderate cases of flatfoot.
If, however, you continue to struggle with pain due to your flat feet, surgical flatfoot reconstruction may become an option. Dr. Wettstein is an expert in flatfoot reconstruction, and should it come to this you will be in very good hands. However, we try to avoid it if we can—and most of the time, custom orthotics will help us do just that!
Do I Need Orthotics for My Flat Feet if I Have No Symptoms?
Not necessarily, but here’s the thing to understand about flat feet.
You may not have any symptoms now. In fact, a majority of flatfoot cases at any given time are asymptomatic. But if your feet aren’t working correctly, they will be subjected to extra wear and tear, and it does add up. So your chances of eventually developing pain and injuries later in life are a lot higher than if you had “normal” arches.
That doesn’t mean you need to get into a pair of orthotics right now, but it does mean that you should pay close attention to what your feet are telling you—and if you haven’t had a comprehensive foot and ankle examination in a while, it’s definitely not a bad idea to schedule one.
If you do notice foot pain start to creep into your life at some point in the future, you’ll definitely want to stay on top of it, be proactive, and get the care you need before the problem has a chance to become severe. Doing so will save you a lot of pain and anxiety in the long run, and could very likely help you prevent the need for reconstructive surgery.
Don’t Let Flat Feet Hold You Back
If you have flat feet or low arches and are experiencing any kind of foot, ankle, or leg discomfort—even if it's still fairly mild and intermittent—we encourage you to give us a call. Small problems have a way of becoming big problems if they are not properly addressed, and our team has a ton of experience helping patients with flat feet stay active and pain-free.