It is estimated that around 20 per cent of adults have flat feet – that is, feet with minimal or non-existent arches, even when not bearing weight.
In this article, we’ll discuss the common causes and symptoms of flat feet as well as corrective exercises to help you correct your flat feet from home.
We’ll also take a look at some of the best products that are available on the market to aid in the management of this common postural deformity.
What Are Flat Feet?
Overpronation, also known as “flat feet,” is a condition characterized by the inward rolling of the ankle and the flattening of the foot arches.
You have flat feet if the entire soles of your feet make contact with the floor when you’re standing.
Some people may have the bone of their arch making contact with the ground giving it a totally flat appearance.
With a healthy arch, you will most likely be able to slide a finger under the arch without having to lift your foot up.
There are two types of flat feet: flexible flat feet and rigid flat feet.
- Flexible flat foot – Flexible flat foot is the most common type of flat foot. It typically occurs in childhood and continues throughout adolescence and adulthood. People with flexible fleet have normal arches when sitting but flattened arches when standing (bearing weight), hence the term “flexible.” Flexible flat foot usually occurs in both feet, but it rarely causes pain or disability.
- Rigid flat foot – People with rigid flat foot have no arch, whether sitting or standing. Rigid flat foot, sometimes referred to as “true” flat foot, is frequently seen in individuals with posterior tibial tendon dysfunction. Rigid flat foot can occur in one or both feet and may cause pain or disability, depending on the severity of the condition.
Rigid flat feet are caused by bone deformities and are a lot more difficult to fix. However, flexible flat feet occurs when there is an arch but it gets flattened when weight is put on it.
Flexible flat feet can be corrected pretty effectively by taking different steps, which we will talk about shortly.
What Causes Flat Feet?
Many people who have flat feet just don’t develop an arch to begin with.
This abnormality cannot be fully explained, although genetics might have a role to play.
Flat feet are normal in young children. In fact, research shows that foot arches don’t fully develop until around 12 years of age.
Flat foot that develops in adulthood, or “adult acquired flat foot” is associated with a number of risk factors, including:
- Improper footwear
- Collapsed arches
- Injury to the ankle or foot
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Some other causes could be damaged tendons in the feet, torn or inflamed posterior tibial tendon, nerve damage, broken or dislocated bones and certain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Another condition that may cause flat feet is tarsal coalition, a deformity of the foot bones that develops in utero.
Symptoms: Other than Discomfort Is Having Flat Feet Bad?
The most obvious symptom of overpronation is flattened foot arches.
While many people with flat feet do not exhibit any noticeable symptoms as a result of this common misalignment, some may experience arch or heel pain.
In some cases, inflammation will occur as a result of the tibia (shin bone) aggravating the inner calf muscles.
In addition to pain and swelling, overpronation may also exacerbate the symptoms of other foot and leg conditions, including:
- Achilles tendonitis
- Plantar fasciitis
- Posterior tibial tendonitis
How Flat Feet Affects Posture
As discussed earlier, the arches can cause your feet to ache but the problems don’t just end there.
The feet are the foundation of your body and if there are problems in the feet, everything upwards will be affected.
Think of a building with bad foundations, the rest of the floors above it and the whole house will be compromised.
In the same way, the effects of having flat feet are felt up the chain in other parts of the body.
It is not uncommon for people with flat feet to also encounter problems with their knees.
Since the arch of the foot is collapsed inwards, this causes the Tibia to rotate inwards affecting the knees; possibly wearing away the knee joints.
In addition, if left untreated, severe and longstanding cases this internal rotation of the knee can result in a knock-kneed appearance to the legs.
Over time, this inward rotation of the knees can also alter the alignment of the hips and lumbar spine, leading to low back pain .
The effects of flat feet can even travel all the way up to the shoulders making it appear that you have uneven shoulders.
As you can see fixing your flat feet can be very important, not just for the feet themselves, but for the rest of your body.
To get started, let’s talk about the different solutions to fixing flat feet.
Professional Treatment Options for Flat Feet
In most cases, surgery is not necessary in order to alleviate the discomfort associated with flexible flat feet.
Depending on the severity of your condition, there are several non-surgical treatment options that may be recommended.
Physical therapy – A physical therapist will recommend stretches and exercises that can be performed at home to relieve pain and prevent overpronation from worsening.
Medication – In some cases, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications will be prescribed for the management of pain and inflammation due to flat feet.
Immobilization – An orthopaedic specialist may recommend the use of a walking cast to immobilize the ankle and prevent it from rolling inward.
Custom orthotics – Your orthopaedic specialist may also recommend orthotic devices that can be worn inside of your shoes to provide extra support for the arches.
In cases where the above treatments are unsuccessful in relieving symptoms, surgery may be required.
There are several different surgical techniques used to correct flat feet, and one or more of these techniques may be used in order to minimize pain and improve the functioning of the foot.
An orthopaedic surgeon will recommend a procedure, or combination of procedures, based on the severity of your condition.
He or she will also take other factors into consideration, such as your activity level and your age when determining which procedures should be performed.
At-Home Management of Flat Feet
Mild to moderate cases of flat foot can usually be managed at home with foot exercises (discussed in the next section) and stretches, over-the-counter pain relievers, and the R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) method of recovery.
There is also a large number of products on the market that can aid in the management of flat feet, which we’ll discuss in the following section.
Before attempting to correct flat feet on your own, however, it’s important to consult with your doctor or orthopaedic specialist to rule out an underlying disorder that may be causing your flat feet.
Over-the-Counter Solutions for Flat Feet
In this section, we’ll discuss a few over-the-counter products that are available to aid in the management of flat feet.
Supportive shoes are shoes that are specially designed to support flat arches, maintain proper alignment of the foot, and minimize the pain associated with flat feet.
They come in a variety of styles, from athletic shoes to high heels to boots.
Look for the term “podiatrist approved” when shopping for supportive shoes.
The structure of the shoes you wear can make a lot of difference, and buying ones that reduce strain on your joints can alleviate pain or unease to a great extent.
Because the anatomy of feet with fallen arches is different from that of those with normal feet, the same shoes won’t work as well for you. A person who has flat feet will need a more supportive shoe than normal.
Finding the right shoe for someone with flat feet should be testing for stability rather than simply relying on the manufacturer’s claims that the shoe is supportive.
Here are some important points when selecting a shoe for flat feet:
- You can insert arch supports into almost any pair of shoes, however, it is better to also make sure that you have quality footwear on top of that.
- Your shoes need to be tough enough to support your feet properly. Pick up each shoe and try softly bending or twisting them to see how easily they give in. Bendiness in the toe area is fine, and is actually better for you. But the middle portion needs to be rigid and strong. Also, check the outer sole and choose shoes with ones that are stiff. This will serve as pronation control for your feet.
- Look for a stiff heel which helps resist the rotation of your heel bone when wearing them. You can test for a stiff heel by pushing in the back of the heel. If it’s firm and doesn’t cave in then it’s a good sign.
- Running or exercising in regular shoes won’t provide you with adequate support. Look for stability control shoes that have a foam lining in the instep that will provide support for your low arch. Your feet will roll inwards less and you’ll feel comfortable performing activities
- Going through all the shoes in a store yourself will take too much time, and might possibly waste your time. Let the salesperson know about your problem, and ask them to specifically recommend different shoes.
You can buy shoes which are specifically made for people who have common feet issues such as plantar fasciitis and flat feet.
These shoes will have special arch supports already built in, softer soles and support for the heel.
Brands such as Orthofeet have a variety of men and women’s shoes that may work well for you.
Shoe inserts are a budget-friendly alternative to supportive shoes.
They come in a variety of styles and lengths to address a wide range of foot problems, including flat arches, plantar fasciitis (heel pain), and leg pain.
The most common types of inserts are insoles, arch supports, and heel liners.
- Insoles – These are designed to replace the existing inner sole of your shoes to provide extra cushioning and support. Insoles for flat feet are made from a variety of materials, including foam, gel, and plastic.
- Arch supports – These inserts are similar to insoles, but they feature extra cushioning in the arch area of the foot. As with insoles, arch supports can be made from foam, gel, or plastic.
- Heel liners – Also referred to as heel cups, these inserts are designed to provide extra cushion and absorb shocks in the heel area of the foot. Some arch supports feature heel cups, which can be helpful for those whose heel pain is exacerbated by flat feet.
It’s important to refer to the manufacturer’s sizing guide when choosing a pair of shoe inserts, as some cannot be cut without altering their shape.
If you’re interested in trying out shoe inserts for your flat feel, be sure to check out our comprehensive post on the best insoles for flat feet.
Arch compression sleeves
Another over-the-counter solution for flat feet are compression sleeves.
Compression sleeves are designed to provide added stability and support to the foot arch. They also increase blood flow to the affected area, thereby reducing inflammation and pain.
Some compression sleeves feature gel-filled pads for extra cushioning in the arch area.
Compression socks are similar to compression sleeves in that they provide extra stability for the foot arch and encourage blood flow to the affected region.
Compression socks are generally thinner than compression sleeves, making them ideal for wear with most types of shoes.
Exercising to Regain Your Arch
This is the number one way of fixing your arch problems if you have flexible flat feet.
Wearing insoles and other orthotics cannot reverse your condition or help you get your arch back, but exercising can.
Watch the video above for an overview of what flat foot is and some exercises you can try.
The exercises shown in this video are included in the last two steps below.
Corrective Exercise Routine for Flat Feet
The arch of your foot is made up of several muscle groups. When you use these muscles to activate the arch, the arch will raise up.
Therefore if your arch is low it could be due to weakness in these muscles or that these muscles are tight and need to be released; a combination of both is also common.
If you do the proper exercises regularly, you can get rid of your flexible flat feet with enough time.
Here is a breakdown of one routine you can try.
You can see steps 1 to 3 from the video above (the video is working but comes up as a grey thumbnail).
Step 1: Roll Out The Feet
The first step before trying out the strengthening exercises is to release the tight muscles that run along the arch of the foot.
To do this you would roll out your feet using a massage ball.
First, place the ball under your foot and roll the ball from the base of your toe down the arch and toward the heel.
Spend about 3-5 minutes rolling up and down on each foot.
Step 2: Towel Crunches
Once you’ve loosened the muscles you can move on to the next exercise. You’ll need a towel for this one.
Place the towel on the floor and stand at one end with your foot on top.
Using your big toe, pull the towel towards you by drawing your big toe inward. You can do this around 50 times on each foot.
Step 3: Toe Spreads
This exercise can be quite relaxing and can be done whilst sitting or watching TV.
All you have to do is lift up your foot and wiggle the toes from top to bottom. This contracts and activates the muscles used to control your toes.
Step 4: Pen-Penny Exercise
For this flat foot exercise you will need a coin and a pen.
When you have these items, with your foot on the ground place a coin under the big toe joint (not the big toe itself) and then insert a pen under the centre of your arch.
The challenge here is to try to push down on the penny without pushing down on the pen.
You’ll find that this is harder than it looks.
Try not to involve the other toes in the challenge but only the big toe; do your best to keep the other toes relaxed.
Step 5: Advanced Pen-Penny Exercise
This exercise uses the same setup as the one before however this time make sure you have your back to a wall or door.
When in position lift the opposite leg off the floor, then using your arm that is on the same side as the foot with the pen and penny underneath it, you want to reach across your body and try to touch the wall behind you whilst maintaining balance.
Switch arms every time you manage to touch behind you.
There are many exercises you can find that will help you with your flat feet. But an expert can show you specific exercises based on the severity of your issue and other factors.
You can learn how to do the exercises effectively and can get an idea about how many times per week and for how long you should be carrying out these exercises.
If you’re concerned about budget, you can always still do these exercises on your own.
Who Wins: Exercise vs Shoes vs Insoles?
When it comes to actually fixing flat feet, nothing beats exercise (if you have flexible flat feet). Shoes and insoles won’t fix fallen arches but can help reduce pain.
There can even be negative effects on relying too heavily on arch supports.
For example, you may be making your arches weaker as the ‘unnatural’ support takes over from what your arch muscles should be doing themselves causing them to further weaken.
So you may see better improvement in fixing your flat feet if you scrap the arch supports totally.
At the end of the day, it is entirely up to you over which method or combinations you try.
However, if you are trying out these exercises and see no improvement after a couple of months then it could be possible that you may have to resort to using orthotics. If you find yourself in this position, it would be a good idea to see a physiotherapist.
Overpronation of the foot is considered normal to a degree, but if your flat feet are limiting your ability to walk, run, or engage in sports, it may be time to investigate the root cause of your fallen arches and consider possible solutions.
Ask your physician about non-surgical treatments for reducing pain and restoring proper function to the foot.
It is a good idea to consult a podiatrist if you have painful symptoms or if you want to determine an exact cause or type of your flat feet.
If none of the measures seems to be helping or if you’re experiencing too much discomfort, you can also consider surgery. However, you might want to take this as a last resort since it can be expensive and recovery can bring problems.
Again discuss this with a health professional.