Inserts that you can buy in stores without a prescription can provide cushioning and support. They may be made of materials like gel, plastic, or foam. Inserts fit into your shoes. But they're not custom-made for your feet. They can provide arch support or extra cushioning on the heel, around the toes, or for your entire foot. Inserts might make your shoes more comfortable but aren't designed to correct foot problems.
Orthotics insoles are different. They are prescription medical devices that you wear inside your shoes to correct biomechanical foot issues such as problems with how you walk, stand, or run. They can also help with foot pain caused by medical conditions such as diabetes, plantar fasciitis, bursitis, and arthritis. Orthotics insoles might even help you avoid surgery to fix flat feet.
Still, you might not need the prescription medical devices. Sometimes, an over-the-counter shoe insert will work just fine. You'll want to ask a podiatrist, a doctor specializing in foot care, for her recommendation.
During an appointment, your podiatrist will take 3D images of each foot and do a thorough examination. That might include watching you walk and noting how your feet, ankles, legs, and hips move.
If you need orthotics insoles, your podiatrist will make a precise mold of your feet. This is important to get the right fit. Once the mold is ready, a professional will turn it into rigid or soft orthotics insoles.
Rigid orthotics insoles, or "functional orthotics insoles," are made from materials like plastic or carbon fiber. They're best for walking shoes or dress shoes with closed toes and low heels. This kind of orthotic is designed to ease foot aches and strains as well as pain in the legs, thighs, and lower back that you might feel if your foot doesn't work like it should.
Soft orthotics insoles, or "accommodative orthotics insoles," are made from soft compression materials. They provide cushioning to take the pressure off uncomfortable or sore spots from conditions such as plantar fasciitis or diabetic foot ulcers. Because of their bulk, you might need to wear soft orthotics with prescription footwear.
You can also get special orthotics insoles designed for sporting equipment such as ski boots and ice skates.