How to Fix Flat Feet: Orthotic Insoles, Supportive Shoes & More

16 min read

To fix a flat foot, get custom orthotics from a doctor. Alternatively, see a physical therapist or use stretches and exercises to correct foot posture. 

Only flexible flat feet can be fixed. Rigid flat feet usually can’t be fixed. 

Hi! My name is Dr. Katherine Enes. I’m a practicing osteopath and physical therapist who works with musculoskeletal conditions. I treat flat feet often and know a thing or two about them.

Today, I’ll tell you how orthotic shoes and insoles can help restore the arch and fix flat feet. I’ll also cover barefoot walking, physical therapy and my favorite foot exercises. We’ll also talk about different types of flat feet.

Let’s dive in!

Disclaimer: This guide was created for educational purposes. It neither offers nor replaces medical advice. Learn more here.

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Table of Contents

1

Wear Orthotic Insoles

The fastest way to fix flat feet is by using special insoles that elevate the foot’s arch. These will give you better foot posture and reduce flat footedness immediately. Many supportive shoes come with an insole like this out-of-the-box. We’ll cover them in the next section. Most of the time, though, an orthotic insole is bought separately. The best option is to get a custom orthotic from a qualified doctor: a podologist or osteopath.

There are many arch support insole types. Some cushion; others stabilize. Some spread out the metatarsals; others fix your overall gait and posture. As far as fixing flat feet goes, all these insoles can be divided into two types. Note that these are just my personal categories; take them with a pinch of salt.

Immediate Relief Insoles

Insoles in this category mechanically increase arch height. This gives your foot, ankle and lower leg better posture. The downside to immediate relief insoles is that once they’re off, the foot goes back to its flat state. These insoles don’t strengthen foot muscles or offer long-term relief. They just prop the foot up while you have them on.

This is a major reason for the flat foot epidemic in the modern world. Many shoes come with immediate relief insoles. These help us walk, stand and run well. At the same time, they give us so much support the foot muscles get weaker and weaker. Insoles that cushion and/or reduce excessive pronation are usually in this category. So are most foam insoles.

Therapeutic Insoles

Insoles in this category don’t give your foot arch much mechanical elevation. Instead, they massage, stretch and strengthen the soft tissue in your foot. This increases foot muscle strength and flexibility. Over time, this fixes a flexible flat foot and makes it healthy again.

The problem with these insoles is that they don’t offer much immediate relief. They work slowly. As they work, your whole body’s biomechanics change – also slowly. It can take weeks or even months to get a healthy foot arch and the biomechanics to go with it.

The good news is that once this happens, you foot arch will maintain itself. This will give you natural shock absorption, fix pronation and supination, and improve overall body posture. I’ve seen therapeutic insoles fix knee pain, hip pain, and back pain. They’re that powerful.

Comparing Therapeutic vs Immediate Relief Insoles

Immediate relief insoles tend to be soft and semi-soft. They tend to have pronounced elevation in the midfoot in order to support the arch immediately. They’re common in athletic and everyday shoes. Unless insoles promise (and deliver) long-term arch elevation, they’re usually in this category.

Therapeutic insoles are usually custom orthotics prescribed by a podiatrist or osteopath. They tend to have less elevation in the mid-foot. They might massage the foot as you walk or change your foot posture in subtle ways. They’re usually rigid or semi-rigid. This means they need to be worn with care, especially at first. You can’t just put them on and go for a 10 mile run – you could get a painful shin splint, plantar fasciitis, etc.

If you want to find a good mix of therapeutic and immediate relief insoles, check out our top insoles list. Some of the models on that page – like the Birkenstock and Superfeet models – have strong therapeutic features.

2

Wear Supportive Shoes

Supportive shoes are shoes that come with orthotic insoles built-in. In some cases, they also have a midsole that enhances the insole’s support. A midsole like this can offer additional support. It could also have a wide base that stabilizes the foot and prevents excessive pronation and supination.

A good supportive shoe gives more support than an orthotic insole. I specifically like three brands for supportive shoes. Birkenstock are the best for long-term arch correction. Vionic have an excellent product line that’s both stylish and supportive. Propet makes outstanding stability and pain relief shoes. I’ve used and recommended all three brands’ shoes and found them to be excellent. To learn more, check out our article on best shoes for flat feet and overpronation.

3

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists mobilize, massage and manipulate your feet by touching them. This reprograms your flat feet to move in a healthy, pain-free way. As your feet start moving correctly, they get the strength they need to support the arch. In other words, a PT will help your body fix flat arches through better biomechanics.

I tell my patients to seek physical therapy, not chiropractic help. Most chiropractors aren’t doctors. They may not have the same degree of knowledge as an osteopathic doctor or PT. And you really want them to have this knowledge. Fixing flat feet symptoms often means working with other parts of the body; not just the foot.

Example: a recent patient in my clinic wore tight shoes for years. Their big toe lost mobility and their metatarsals were compressed. This gave them a flat foot. To fix the problem, my colleagues did a lot of work in the forefoot. Another example: many athletes I’ve worked with have a shortened achilles tendon and tight calf muscle. This too can cause flat feet. If I wasn’t a doctor, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to diagnose that.

Here’s another thing. Chiropractic adjustments offer strong immediate relief. But because they’re about applying controlled force rather than changing biomechanics, that relief is often short-lived. Since you’re still moving the same way, those old habits tend to come back – and fast. If you want serious, long-term health, your best bet is to see a physical therapist. This is why I specifically spent years of my career learning to be a PT. I believe it’s the best way to provide long-term relief.

4

Walk Barefoot

Barefoot walking is a popular way to fix a flexible flat foot. If you have first-degree or second-degree flat feet, it can quickly build arch strength. An hour or two of daily barefoot walking is enough. The thing is, you need to have a relatively healthy foot to begin with. Barefoot walking is for increasing arch strength. It will not turn flat feet with poor biomechanics into healthy ones.

Put differently… If you have third-degree flat feet, i.e. completely flat feet, don’t walk barefoot. If you have pain or discomfort in the foot, ankle or knee, don’t walk barefoot. You’ll just reinforce bad habits and possibly hurt yourself. If your arch is completely flat to the point it alters your biomechanics, don’t use this method. If possible, see a physical therapist who can help your foot problem.

Want the benefits of barefoot walking but can’t walk around barefoot? Get the Xero model we recommend here. It feels like walking barefoot but has a little cushioning for hard surfaces like concrete.

5

Massage the Arch

Overuse injuries can shorten and constrict the connective tissue in the foot. When the muscles and tendons in the foot are overstressed, they can shorten. If they’re stressed constantly, they’ll stay in that shortened state. Over time, this makes the foot roll inward. This causes pronation and flat feet. It can also cause foot pain through conditions like plantar fasciitis.

This is why massaging the foot is so helplful. It offers relief from flat foot pain and elevates the arch by making it more flexible. Here are the best ways to massage the arch.

Use a tennis ball or massage ball

Tennis Ball

Take a tennis ball and roll it around underfoot. If you feel muscle pain, start seated. If you don’t feel muscle pain, roll the foot under one foot while standing. Use your hands to prop yourself up against a wall for balance.

I recommend doing this exercise regularly. Get to the point where you can stand on the ball for a second or two while holding a wall. This will mean your foot is nice and flexible.

Massage Ball

Get a special foot massage ball and roll it around underfoot. You can do this seated or standing. Since a massage ball is a lot better at releasing tension than a tennis ball, no need to stand on it. Just keep massaging your feet regularly while increasing pressure slowly.

Use a water bottle

You can also massage the arch using a water bottle. If you have heel or foot pain, you can put the bottle in a freezer first. This will provide immediate pain relief. For heel pain, keep the bottle under the heel bone for a few seconds before rolling it back under the arch.

6

Towel Crunches

This is a classic exercise for flexible flatfoot patients. It helps build arch strength quickly.

  1. Take a towel; the longer, the better.
  2. Place the short side of the towel under your toes.
  3. Now curl your toes, starting with the big toe. Then release. The towel should move towards you.
  4. Keep doing this repeatedly to get the whole length of the towel under your foot.

7

Windshield Wipers

Windshield wipers are a combo foot and ankle exercise. They’re helpful for flexible flatfoot correction. They’re also good if you’re rehabbing or prehabbing for ankle injuries. They build up strength and coordination in the whole foot-ankle complex.

Here’s how you do the exercise.

  1. Sit with the foot flat and facing forward. The big toe should point in the same direction as the knee.
  2. Rotate the foot inward, touching the outside of the foot to the floor.
  3. Rotate the foot outward, touching the inside of the foot to the floor.
  4. Repeat 10-15 times. Start with 1 set and add another set every 3 days, until you get to 5.

8

Foot Slide

This one looks similar to the windshield wiper exercise but is different. It’s a short foot exercise that quickly helps build arch strength.

  1. Sit with the foot flat and facing forward. The big toe should point in the same direction as the knee.
  2. Slide the forefoot outwards and towards the heel. Make sure to slide, i.e. the forefoot should remain on the ground.
  3. Hold the position for 3-10 seconds; as long as you can.
  4. Get back to the initial position. Repeat 10-15 times. Start with 1 set and progress to 3 as your feet adjust.

9

The Heel Raise

A strong, functional calf muscle prevents the arch from collapsing. This specific exercise involves ankle dorsiflexion. It improves arch strength and heel stability.

  1. Sit or stand. Lift your heels as high as you can, pushing off from your toes. Use the wall to support yourself if necessary.
  2. Hold the upper position for 3 seconds.
  3. Lower back to the floor.

If the exercise is too easy, stand on the edge of a stair so your heels can fall below toe level. If that’s still too easy, use one leg at a time.

10

Standing Calf Stretch

  1. Stand in front of a wall, 10-15 inches away depending on your height. Keep your hands on the wall.
  2. Take a step back with one leg.
  3. Gently lean forward towards the well, bending the front knee. Look for a light, gentle stretch in the rear calf.
  4. Hold for 15 seconds the first time. Build up to holding for 60 seconds over time.

Be very careful. People with flat feet often have a tight achilles tendon. This is especially common with runners and people who wear heel drop shoes or heels. We don’t want to irritate and overstress this tendon. Light stretches; very light.

Flat Foot Types

Flexible Flat Feet

A flexible flat foot is flat because the arch has collapsed. With proper support – from foot muscles, an orthotic insole or something else – the foot will regain its arch. With flexible flat feet, the arch is usually present when you’re lying down.

Flexible flat feet are very common in the modern world. They happen anytime the foot arches can no longer support the load they need to bear. This can happen because of tight shoes that stop foot muscles from working properly. It can happen because an individual is tall, muscular or overweight. It can happen because of a sedentary lifestyle.

Most cases of flexible flat foot aren’t too bad. They can, however, lead to other problems. A flat foot can no longer do its job – cushioning and stabilizing the foot – properly. This can lead to pronation, a strong heel strike, ankle or knee pain and other painful conditions. In extreme cases, it can lead to conditions like posterior tibial tendon dysfunction. This specific condition requires rest, immobilization and (sometimes) anti-inflammatory drugs.

In other words… Just because flat feet are common doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them seriously.

Rigid Flat Feet

A rigid flat foot is permanently flat. It doesn’t have an arch whether you’re lying, standing or sitting. People with flat feet are usually born with them – or develop them early on in life. They’re often cause by abnormal bone formation or a flatfoot deformity. More rarely, rigid flat feet happen because of tight or shortened – e.g. a shortened achilles or tight calf muscle.

If someone was born with the condition or got it early on in life, they may need flat foot surgery. The bone structure of the foot may not allow for an arch. In other cases, rigid flat feet can be fixed with long-term treatment and arch correction.

Rigid flat feet don’t always need to be fixed. I’ve seen athletes who perform well and have excellent biomechanics despite the condition. See a podiatrist, physical therapist or osteopath if you suspect that you, or your child, have rigid flat feet.

What Causes Flat Feet?

There’s a long list of causes for flat feet. The most common ones can be divided into…

1. Excessive load

If your foot has to bear an excessive load, the arch will start to collapse. The specific reason for an excessive load varies. It could be because an individual is tall, muscular or overweight. It could be due to frequent walking or running in a bad pair of shoes. It could be because a shoe is so tight or constricting it stops the foot muscles from supporting the arch.

Either way, the end result is the same. The arch starts to go flat. Over time, this causes flat feet.

2. Soft tissue shortening

If the soft tissue in a foot shortens, the foot has a hard time regaining its natural arch. Soft tissues can shorten because of walking, jumping or running on hard surfaces. They can shorten from wearing shoes that are too tight or constricting. They can shorten because the foot is often tired or injured and chronically inflamed.

Many modern shoes can shorten the muscles and tendons in a foot, too. Take running shoes with drop heels that elevate the heel. These can improve sports performance. They can also shorten the achilles tendon and the foot arches. When this happens, it becomes harder for the foot to regain its natural arch. Classic example of soft tissue shortening.

3. Aging, genetics and medical conditions

Getting older, genetics, bone structure and medical conditions can all cause flat feet. Like many other things, our body’s ability to maintain a healthy arch is highly individual. Some people have a healthy arch their whole life. Others start to see the first signs of a collapsed arch in early childhood and need help maintaning foot posture early.

FAQ

What to do if my child’s foot is flat?

If a child’s foot is flat, see a qualified doctor ASAP. Children’s bones don’t fully form and harden under their teen years. This means that, over time, a flexible flat foot can turn into a rigid flat foot – which is much harder to correct. It’s best to nip the problem in the bud as soon as you notice it. The good news is that kids tend to respond to treatment faster than adults. With the right foot support, they’ll quickly regain their arch most of the time.

In Conclusion

Now let’s recap everything we covered above. To fix flexible flat feet, get orthotic insoles or a shoe model with arch support. Use exercises and stretches, like the ones on this page, to improve foot strength and flexibility. See a physical therapist to improve your foot biomechanics and fix flat feet, ankle instability, overpronation and supination, etc.

If you have rigid flat feet, see a qualified doctor. If your child has flat feet, also see a qualified doctor. You don’t want to risk their flexible flat feet becoming rigid.

Writer:

DR. KATHERINE ENES

Last Updated:

May 19, 2022

Dr. Katherine Enes

Dr. Enes is a doctor (M.D.) specializing in physical therapy, osteopathy and sports medicine. As a working doctor, she helps patients rehab and improves athletes’ biomechanics.

Dr. Enes is also a sports enthusiast. She’s tried capoeira, Crossfit, Swedish walking and more. Her main sports are general fitness and walking. 

As a writer for Shoethority, Dr. Enes covers biomechanics, injury recovery, injury prevention and more.