What is an Ankle-Foot Orthosis?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) is an orthotic device which is designed to correct or address problems with the ankle and foot. In order for an ankle-foot orthosis to work properly, it is necessary that it be fitted to the patient. It does not necessarily need to be custom made, but it does need to be adjusted by a physician to confirm that it fits properly, and to check for comfort and wearability. If someone does not feel comfortable in an orthosis, the tendency may be to avoid wearing it, or to adjust it at home, both of which could result in a problem with the device.

An ankle-foot orthosis can help restore mobility for some patients.
An ankle-foot orthosis can help restore mobility for some patients.

Ankle-foot orthoses are one of the most common types of orthotic devices. They are used in a wide variety of situations, and made in several different styles. The configuration of the device includes hard plastic and adjustable soft straps, with the device holding the ankle and foot in place, while the straps allow some freedom of movement so that the patient can function. Specialty products are available for pediatric patients who cannot fit comfortably into devices sized for adults.

A sprained ankle can be treated with ankle-foot orthosis.
A sprained ankle can be treated with ankle-foot orthosis.

This type of device may be worn to correct a deformity, or to address ongoing issues with the ankle and foot such as muscle contractures, muscle weakness, loss of muscle control, and muscle wasting. The device stabilizes the ankle and foot in this place so that the patient can walk and enjoy more freedom of movement.

Ankle-foot orthotics are used to treat various disorders that require holding the ankle and foot in place.
Ankle-foot orthotics are used to treat various disorders that require holding the ankle and foot in place.

An ankle-foot orthosis can also be worn when a patient needs corrective bracing for a short period of time during injury recovery. Sprained ankles, tendinitis, and similar conditions can be treated with an ankle-foot orthosis, and an orthosis can also be used after surgery to provide support. This device is also used for conditions like unstable ankles, ankles and feet which permit an uncomfortable range of motion, flat feet, and foot drop.

Excessive supination, or rolling outward of the foot, can often be treated with an ankle brace.
Excessive supination, or rolling outward of the foot, can often be treated with an ankle brace.

It is important for patients to take the time to work with a physician to fit an ankle foot orthosis properly. During an initial session, patients should not be shy about problems they identify with the device. They should also contact their physicians to report problems which develop with wear. It may be necessary to try a different device or to adjust a device to achieve the desired effect. While it may sometimes feel like it, an ankle-foot orthosis is not actually designed to be a torture device, and pain, discomfort, and unreasonable limitations in movement are not intended to occur.

A proper diagnosis by a medical doctor is often needed to treat ankle pain.
A proper diagnosis by a medical doctor is often needed to treat ankle pain.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

golf07

I have a drop foot that causes me to have an uneven gait when I walk. On days when I am really tired, my toes drag and I find it easy to trip on things.

I don't like that unstable feeling I have, and have found myself falling at times that have been embarrassing and frustrating.

Many times to compensate for the drop foot, I will swing my leg out and around, but it takes a lot of energy to do this with every step.

Now I wear drop foot braces that have improved my gait and steadiness. They fit inside my shoes so they aren't noticeable to many people. I feel much more confident and also find that I have more energy.

This extra energy is both physical and emotional. Physically I don't I have to compensate for my gait, and emotionally I don't worry so much about losing my balance and falling over.

andee

My niece has cerebral palsy and walking has always been difficult for her. She uses a hinged ankle-foot orthosis and this has helped her quite a bit.

This makes it a little easier for her to walk as it gives her the extra support she needs. She tries so hard to keep up with the other kids.

The brace gives her more support so she feels more steady when she is on her feet. It doesn't help her walk any faster, but she feels like she has a little bit more control.

She will probably need to use something like this the rest of her life. Some days she doesn't want to put the braces on and goes without them, but it doesn't take her long to realize she needs the extra support they give.

sunshined

I have extremely flat feet, and never realized how many problems this can cause. I am on my feet most of the day at work, and when I get home, they are just killing me.

An orthopedic doctor suggested I try an ankle foot brace. At first I didn't really understand how this would help much, but I was willing to give anything a try.

After a week of wearing these braces I could tell a big difference. My feet are still tired at the end of the day, but I don't have as much pain or throbbing.

It might sound a little strange, but I also felt like I was lighter on my feet and felt more confident when I walked.

honeybees

I have heard that a sprained ankle can take more time to heal than a broken bone. We certainly felt that way when my daughter sprained her ankle playing volleyball.

She had to wear an ankle-foot orthosis brace for quite awhile to keep her ankle stable. It was much better than walking around on crutches, but she had to wear this brace for a long time.

Getting it to fit properly is very important. She had to go back more than once to get this adjusted properly. There is a fine line between this brace being tight enough to be effective and not too tight.

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