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Orthotics and insoles for plantar fasciitis: Do they help, and are they worth it?

Learn how and why insoles and orthotics can help plantar fasciitis.
Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer
Jan 31, 2024
Medically reviewed by
Maryke Louw
Insoles are often prescribed for plantar fasciitis, but do they work, which ones are best, and are they worth it? Read on to find out.

What are orthotics and insoles?

Orthotics or insoles are special shoe inserts commonly recommended to help treat painful foot conditions like plantar fasciitis.

They are used by athletes and non-athletes alike, with the overall aim of helping to support, protect, or enhance natural foot function.

Insoles are available in different shapes and sizes and vary in firmness and flexibility depending on the need. They are made from various materials, such as EVAs (ethyl-vinyl acetates) which are “rubber-like” materials, gel, foams, cork, moldable plastics, and carbon fiber.

Insoles and orthotics come in different shapes and sizes and are designed to support and cushion the foot.

Are insoles the same as orthotics?

The term “insoles” generally refers to all shoe inserts, while orthotics refers to an insole that has been adapted to provide a specific benefit to the foot.

So, all orthotics are insoles, but not all insoles are orthotics. But you don’t have to worry about this too much. We’ve described each type of orthotic or insole in detail to avoid confusion.

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Different types of insoles

Insoles can be divided into 2 broad types, supportive and unsupportive. 

They can be categorized by the materials used to make them, how easy they are to get, and their specific features and functions. 

Unsupportive insoles and shoe inserts

These include:

  • Soft or “accommodative” insoles
  • Gel heel pads and cups

Soft or "accommodative" insoles

Soft insoles are made from soft materials, usually fabric, foam, or gel. They are cheap and easy to find and fit.

Soft unsupportive insoles offer no arch support and will likely not help for plantar fasciitis.

Main features and functions of soft insoles:

  • Available in different shapes and sizes but usually in “one-size-fits-all” options
  • Can sometimes be cut to size for your foot and shoe
  • Provide a light cushioning effect
  • Compress and lose shape quickly, so offer no arch support or movement control

Do soft or accommodative insoles help for plantar fasciitis?

There is no evidence to support using soft insoles for treating plantar fasciitis.

When to use soft insoles

Soft insoles may help if you have mild foot discomfort or you’re looking to make your shoes feel more comfortable. But they will probably not help if you have pain associated with plantar fasciitis.

If full-length soft insoles aren’t comfortable for you, or you’d like to add cushioning without affecting your whole foot, you could try using other inserts like ¾ length soft insoles, gel heel cups, or heel pads.

Gel heel pads (cushions) and gel heel cups

Gel heel pads are soft flat gel discs that you place in your shoe to help cushion and protect your heelbone.

Gel heel cups are like gel pads, but they have a wall that surrounds your heel. Supposedly, this wall aims to cradle your heel and prevent it from slipping around in your shoe, which may improve foot function and reduce strain on your plantar fascia.

Gel heel pads and gel heel cups can help heel pain if it is caused by thinning of the fat pad.

Do gel heel pads and cups help plantar fasciitis?

People with heel pain often have injuries to more than one structure in their feet (plantar fascia, fat pad, bone). Gel heel pads are beneficial when your plantar fasciitis is accompanied by changes to the fat pad under your heel.

Your heel fat pad is a layer of fatty tissue under your heel bone that acts as a mini-shock absorber. With age or overuse, this fat pad may become less thick, which results in more pressure on your heel bone and soreness in that area. Researchers have found that a thinner fat pad is also associated with plantar fasciitis.

They are often also prescribed for people who have been diagnosed as having a heel spur. A heel spur is a small bony projection that can form on the underside of your heel bone.

However, evidence shows that heel spurs are often painless and wrongly blamed for causing plantar fasciitis pain.

When to use gel heel pads

They are particularly helpful when you have heel pain associated with the fat pad under your heel or a heel spur.

When might gel heel pads or heel cups not be that useful?

If your heel pain was caused by a lack of stability or control in your ankle and foot, then these unsupportive insoles will not really make much of a difference. You may be better off trying a more supportive insole that has heel cushioning built into it.

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Supportive orthotic insoles

These include:

  • Prefabricated insoles or orthotics
  • Custom insoles or rigid functional orthotics

Function and features of supportive insoles:

  • Provide extra support for your feet and vary in firmness and design based on the type of support they need to provide.
  • They may provide extra arch support, shock absorption, supination control, or metatarsal lift. Or a combination of different support features like these.
  • Often, they have added cushioning to improve comfort too.

Prefabricated insoles

Prefabricated insoles are premade insoles constructed from hard, soft, firm, flexible, or a combination of these materials, depending on the type you choose. They are less expensive than custom insoles and easy to find and fit.

Prefabricated insoles come with a variety of features but are usually just a rough fit. They can be a cheap way to test if insoles help your plantar fasciitis.

Main features and functions of prefabricated insoles:

  • Non-customized but available in different design ranges and can be cut to size
  • Each range provides generic yet distinct levels of cushioning and arch support for various conditions, uses, foot and shoe types
  • Longer lasting than soft insoles (6 months – 2 years)
  • Can be used in different shoes

Do prefabricated insoles help for plantar fasciitis?

We're not sure yet. The current research has failed to show any extra benefit from wearing prefabricated insoles as part of the treatment for plantar fasciitis. However, the available research is not very high quality - we must wait for better and more studies to draw reliable conclusions. 

Like with heel pads, we find that some of our patients benefit from prefabricated insoles while others don't.

When to use prefabricated insoles

Prefabricated insoles can be a great way to test if more arch support and cushioning will help your pain without spending too much money. By supporting the arch better, you can take some of the strain off the plantar fascia, which may help it recover.

Custom insoles or rigid functional orthotics

Custom insoles are crafted from unique materials based on the prescribed level of support and cushioning a person needs.

They are expensive, take time to make (2 – 4weeks), and not easy to access as they require specialist fitting and manufacturing.

Custom orthotic are made to fit the exact features of your feet and may be useful for treating plantar fasciitis.

Main features and functions of custom insoles:

  • Individually prescribed by a podiatrist after a thorough assessment
  • Customized to your foot structure, walking pattern, and shoe type from a cast or using a foot scanner
  • Longer lasting (shell: 2 – 5 years; cover: up to 2 years)
  • Do not change shape
  • Control joint motion and maintain optimal foot alignment

Do orthotics help plantar fasciitis?

Some researchers found that custom orthotics can improve plantar fasciitis pain in the short term (first 12 weeks) slightly better than prefabricated insoles, but not beyond.

When to use custom insoles or orthotics

Customized insoles may be a good option for you if:

  • You’ve had positive results with prefabricated insoles, and you’d like a longer-lasting “glove-like” fitting insole.
  • You’ve found no relief with taping, exercises, load management, and lifestyle advice. Experts suggest that custom insoles may then be the next step for you. 
  • Your foot shape predisposes you to plantar fasciitis. Examples include flat arches with very flexible ligaments (flexible flat feet) – making it difficult to control your foot movement when you walk or run. Or stiff high arches – making your feet less flexible.
Flat feet can predispose you to developing plantar fasciitis and you may benefit from custom orthotics if you have this foot shape.

What type of insoles is best for plantar fasciitis?

There is no “one-size-fits-all” option for plantar fasciitis because everyone’s symptoms and situation are unique.

With unclear evidence, varying theories on what works and what doesn’t, and the sheer variety of insoles available, it can become overwhelming when choosing the best type for you.

How do you choose the right insoles when you have plantar fasciitis?

To help you decide, we offer these guidelines:

How to choose your insoles for plantar fasciitis

1
Choose insoles that resemble your foot shape
Whether you have high, mid-, or flat arches, the insole must be level with the contour of your foot to support it adequately.
2
Test different firmness levels
If your foot is very sensitive and easy to irritate, the pressure from a firm or rigid orthotic may worsen your pain (similar to pressing on a bruise) - a softer one may be better to start with.
3
Ease into new insoles
Always allow enough time for your body to get used to new insoles. For example, you could start by wearing them for a few hours a day. Then, build on that until you feel comfortable wearing them for longer periods. Eventually, you will be able to wear them for as long as you need them.
4
Don’t think of insoles as a cure
They may help you feel better and reduce pain in the short term, but insoles (no matter what type) can’t cure plantar fasciitis. So instead, use them as a tool to support your recovery as part of your broader treatment plan.

Why do insoles work for some people with plantar fasciitis and not for others?

Everyone is different, and plantar fasciitis usually stems from multiple causes. Therefore, your foot is only a piece of the puzzle when treating it.

Predicting whether insoles will work for you depends on the root causes of your specific case of plantar fasciitis.

For example, if your foot arch requires more support, you may respond well to a firmer supportive insole. But, if your fat pad is a little thin, then a softer gel insole may work better for you.

On the other hand, if your plantar fasciitis is unrelated to your foot function, orthotics probably won’t help you. No matter what type you choose.

Orthotics don't always work

If your plantar fasciitis is unrelated to your foot function, orthotics probably won’t help you. No matter what type you choose.
More about plantar fasciitis

What can you do for plantar fasciitis other than use insoles?

There are other ways to treat plantar fasciitis that are reliable and proven. For example, addressing factors like wearing supportive shoes, weight management, and following a comprehensive rehabilitation program that include:

The Exakt Health app also offers personalized exercise guidance and evidence-based tips for smoothly and effectively managing plantar fasciitis. You can start using it at any stage of your recovery, and the app will adjust to your current condition, helping you progress towards a full return to sports.

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Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer is a freelance healthcare writer and digital content strategist for healthcare businesses and medical content agencies. She has a BSc in Physiotherapy and worked as a physiotherapist for more than 14 years, specializing in sports injury rehabilitation, chronic pain management, and women's health. Kim combines her clinical experience and digital marketing skills to create relevant and helpful content that improves patients' lives.
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