What are Orthotic Devices?

C. Ausbrooks

Orthotic devices, also known as orthoses, are instruments which are applied to the human body to align, support, or correct deformities, or to improve the movement of joints, spine, or limbs. These devices come in direct contact with the outside of the body, and are used by podiatrists, medical doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists. There are numerous types of orthoses, the most commonly used being casts, foot inserts, and splints.

Shoe insole.
Shoe insole.

Most orthotic devices are prefabricated, and then fitted to the patient. In some cases, the devices are created with specific dimensions taken from an individual patient, and are known as custom orthotics. Other orthoses are fabricated in various sizes, such as small, medium, or large, and the patient is fitted with the size that best matches their body. Proper fit is important to prevent additional problems due to a tight fitting or uncomfortable device.

A finger splint is one type of orthotic device.
A finger splint is one type of orthotic device.

Orthotic devices are fitted to the patient by a specialist known as an orthotist, or by a health care professional such as a doctor or therapist. Many orthoses are available by prescription and can be purchased at a pharmacy. Other devices, such as orthotic insoles, can be purchased as a retail item without the need for a doctor’s prescription.

A person wearing a knee brace.
A person wearing a knee brace.

Although any device that directly addresses motion of the joints or limbs can be labeled an orthotic device, the most well-known and widely used are foot orthotics. They are made of numerous materials and take many different forms, depending on the patient’s individual problem. All share the same goal of improving the function of the feet, minimizing stress, deformities, and pain, providing support, relieving pressure, and reducing symptoms of feet related pathologies.

There are three primary types of foot orthotics, known as rigid, soft, and semi-rigid. Rigid devices are used to control the function of the feet, and to improve or eliminate pain in the feet, legs, and back. They are made of a firm or hard material, such as plastic. They must be fitted snugly to the patient to prevent and correct abnormalities of the feet which cause pain in the rest of the body.

Soft devices are typically available to anyone in the form of orthotic inserts, and are made of soft material. They are designed to reduce shock and pressure, and make walking more comfortable. Diabetics, those with arthritis or a lack of tissue on the side of the feet, and anyone who is on their feet for long hours may find soft orthotics most helpful.

Semi-rigid orthotic devices are used most frequently for athletes, and are made of both soft and hard materials which are layered to provide support. They allow for balance of the feet while playing sports or moving quickly. The idea is that by improving the function of the feet, the muscles and tendons of the legs will work more efficiently and with less discomfort.

Although foot orthotics are often the first thing that spring to mind, there are several other types of commonly used orthotic devices. Spinal braces, knee braces, and even some crutches and walking aids can be considered orthoses. Regardless of type, all orthotics strive for the same result, and this is to either improve or correct the movement of the body for optimum health.

Crutches are considered an orthotic device.
Crutches are considered an orthotic device.

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Discussion Comments


I am currently working on my thesis entitled Product Development of an Orthotic Device for Plantar Fasciitis Injured Track and Field Athletes. I came across your article and it is really helpful. --Yvette V.

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