Custom-made foot orthoses: an analysis of prescription characteristics

“Foot orthosis prescriptions are complex, but can be broadly classified into three categories. Selection of these prescription subtypes appears to be influenced by both patient factors (age and sex) and clinician factors (clinic location).” – Menz, Allan, et al.

The objective of this study was to describe patterns of custom-made foot orthosis prescriptions from a commercial Australian podiatric orthotic laboratory, in order to provide insights into contemporary clinical practice.

Overall, we found that although a wide array of prescription variables are being utilised by clinicians, the basic design features of orthoses could be broadly classified into three subtypes (‘clusters’), primarily dictated by variation in rearfoot cast correction. We also found significant differences between these clusters in relation to the age and sex of the patient, and the geographic location of the prescribing clinician, indicating that both patient- and clinician-specific factors influence prescribing patterns.

When the frequency of individual prescription items are considered, our findings are similar to those of Landorf et al.,9 who found that the ‘typical’ orthosis prescription was a modified Root style functional foot orthosis, constructed from polypropylene, and balanced to the neutral or vertical calcaneal stance position with a heel stabiliser (also referred to as a rearfoot post).

We also found polypropylene to be the most frequently prescribed material (92% of prescriptions), the most frequently selected rearfoot cast correction was 0 degrees (16% of prescriptions) and that the majority of prescriptions included a heel stabiliser (73.9%). The predominance of polypropylene observed is consistent with a recent industry analysis that suggested that polypropylene accounts for 43% of the entire foot orthotic market.3

However, the statistical approach we employed in this study also allowed us to identify three bro>ad ‘clusters’ of orthosis based on the inclusion of multiple prescription variables, thereby providing more detailed insights into prescription approaches.

It is important to note that these clusters should not be considered to represent completely distinct, homogenous groups, as considerable variability is evident within each cluster. A more correct interpretation is that orthotic prescriptions within each cluster are more similar to each other than prescriptions in the other two clusters.

The observation of clustering suggests that although thousands of prescription combinations could potentially be generated from an orthotic prescription form, it is likely that in practice far fewer combinations are actually utilised due to the interdependence of individual prescription variables.

Fig. 2. Three dimensional representations of typical orthoses for each of the identified clusters, generated from the same patient foot scan. Top: plantar view, middle: medial view, bottom: posterior view (medial side to left). NB: heel stabilisers have been removed to aid visualisation of the heel contour and non-automated finishing (e.g. rounding of anterior edge of orthosis) not included. Menz, Allan et al. 2017

The characteristics of the three identified clusters are summarised in Fig. 2. Based on the theorised biomechanical effects of these prescription variables, these clusters could be considered to represent orthosis designs which progressively increase supination moments (i.e. increased levels of pronation ‘control’).

Cluster 1, characterised by a prescription more likely to incorporate a modified Root or mid-modified Root arch fill technique and a higher cast correction in the forefoot, could be considered to be similar to the foot orthosis described by Root.13

Cluster 2 could be considered to provide greater rearfoot pronation ‘control’ than cluster 1 due to the combination of the mid arch fill technique (where the highest point of the orthosis is located at the talo-navicular joint) and a medial heel skive, an orthotic modification that aims to increase the supination moment acting across the subtalar joint axis.14

Finally, cluster 3 features even greater rearfoot pronation control features than cluster 1 and 2, as it is characterised by a prescription more likely to incorporate an inverted arch fill technique and higher cast correction in the rearfoot, similar to the inverted device first described by Blake.15,16

The observation of these three broad ‘clusters’ of orthoses is consistent with the recent findings of Banwell et al.,10 who conducted a Delphi survey to establish the rationale underpinning orthotic prescription by Australian podiatrists for symptomatic flexible pes planus. Clinicians were asked to indicate what type of foot orthosis they would typically prescribe in the presence of clinical signs of pronated foot posture, classified as ‘moderate’ or ‘considerable’ rearfoot eversion, talonavicular bulging and lowered navicular position.

The orthotic options were modified Root device posted to neutral, modified Root device posted to inverted, or Inverted device (i.e. Blake Inverted). For ‘moderate’ signs of pronated foot posture, clinicians were more likely to prescribe a modified Root orthosis (neutral or inverted), while for ‘considerable’ signs of pronated foot posture, clinicians were more likely to prescribe an Inverted orthosis.

Furthermore, clinicians reached consensus that when increased control of foot pronation is required, the orthosis should be an Inverted device (i.e. incorporate an inverted correction) or include a medial heel skive (i.e. medial heel skive modification to the cast).

The discriminant function analysis indicated that the three clusters could be identified by a combination of 5 variables (rearfoot cast correction, cover shape, orthosis type, forefoot cast correction and plantar fascial accommodation), with an overall prediction accuracy of 70%. This suggests that although the clusters were initially derived from 48 different prescription variables, a significant amount of variance in prescriptions can be explained by a much smaller subset of variables, with rearfoot cast correction being the strongest predictor.

The remaining variance can be explained by variables such as covering material and less frequently requested optional additions, such as heel lifts and deflective forefoot padding. While these variables would influence the function of the orthosis, they appear to make less of a contribution to identifying the three broad types of device.

When the three clusters were compared, we found significant differences in relation to clinic location and the age and sex of the patient. It is possible that clinic location may be a proxy indicator of educational background, in that clinicians in the same state or country may be more likely to have attended the same university and therefore adopted similar orthotic prescribing approaches compared to clinicians in other geographic locations.

The associations with age and sex suggest that older patients and females may be less likely to be prescribed more ‘controlling’ orthoses. The association with age may reflect caution regarding the possible detrimental effects of highly controlling foot orthoses on skin integrity or balance in an older person.18,19 However, the association with sex is unclear, as although there are some morphological differences between the feet of men and women,20,21 no sex-specific differences in foot posture have been reported 22,23 and there is no evidence that responses to foot orthoses differ according to sex.

Our findings need to be interpreted in the context of several limitations. First, the prescription data were obtained from a single laboratory in the state of Victoria, Australia. Given that the definition and interpretation of individual prescription items may vary, our findings cannot necessarily be generalised to other laboratories, both within Australia and other countries. This is particularly the case for the ‘arch fill’ option, the terminology of which is unique to the laboratory we used.

Second, the statistical analysis approach required that the number of clusters be pre-specified. We selected three clusters based on the premise that there would be three broad ‘types’ of orthosis: a modified Root-style device, and inverted-style device, and a ‘hybrid’ device somewhere in between. Our results confirmed this and revealed the three clusters are well delineated. However, several other cluster solutions could be derived from these data with different interpretations as to their meaning.

Third, we have interpreted the three clusters using a rather simplistic paradigm of increasing ‘control’ of foot pronation. Although this is consistent with previous literature pertaining to the indications for prescribing orthotic modifications such as inverted orthoses and medial heel skives,10,14,15,17 we acknowledge that this is not the only goal of orthotic therapy and that the clinical reasoning underpinning these prescriptions may be far more complex.

Finally, as we did not have access to detailed clinical assessment data or patient-reported outcomes, we are unable to comment as to how each individual’s biomechanical profile influenced the prescription, nor whether these prescriptions were ‘correct’ or appropriate.

The findings of this study have implications for both clinical practice and research. For clinicians, these data provide a point of reference against which their individual orthotic prescription approach can be benchmarked. For researchers, these findings can be used to inform the selection of prescription parameters to ensure that the orthoses used in future clinical trials are reflective of contemporary clinical practice.

Discussion from
Custom-made foot orthoses: an analysis of prescription characteristics from an Australian commercial orthotic laboratory, Hylton B. Menz, Jamie J. Allan, Daniel R. Bonanno, Karl B. Landorf and George S. Murley. Journal of Foot and Ankle Research 2017 10:23 DOI: 10.1186/s13047-017-0204

10. Adults with flexible pes planus and the approach to the prescription of customised foot orthoses in clinical practice: A clinical records audit, Banwell HA, Thewlis D, Mackintosh S. Foot (Edinb). 2015 Jun;25(2):101-9. doi: 10.1016/j.foot.2015.03.005. Epub 2015 Mar 25

13. Development of the functional orthosis, Root ML. Clin Podiatr Med Surg. 1994 Apr;11(2):183-210.

14. The medial heel skive technique. Improving pronation control in foot orthoses, Kirby KA. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 1992 Apr;82(4):177-88.

15. Inverted functional orthosis, Blake RL. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 1986 May;76(5):275-6.

16. Update and rationale for the inverted functional foot orthosis, Ferguson H, Blake RL. Clin Podiatr Med Surg. 1994 Apr;11(2):311-37.

17. Consensus-based recommendations of Australian podiatrists for the prescription of foot orthoses for symptomatic flexible pes planus in adults, Banwell HA, Mackintosh S, Thewlis D, Landorf KB. J Foot Ankle Res. 2014 Nov 25;7(1):49. doi: 10.1186/s13047-014-0049-2

18. Various types of orthoses used in podiatry, Berenter RW, Kosai DK. Clin Podiatr Med Surg. 1994 Apr;11(2):219-29.

19. Foot deformities, biomechanical and pathomechanical changes associated with aging including orthotic considerations, Part II, Whitney KA. Clin Podiatr Med Surg. 2003 Jul;20(3):511-26, x.

20. Sex-related differences in foot shape, Krauss I, Grau S, Mauch M, Maiwald C, Horstmann T. Ergonomics. 2008 Nov;51(11):1693-709. doi: 10.1080/00140130802376026.

21. Comparison of male and female foot shape, Luo G, Houston VL, Mussman M, Garbarini M, Beattie AC, Thongpop C. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2009 Sep-Oct;99(5):383-90.

22. Normative values for the Foot Posture Index, Redmond AC, Crane YZ, Menz HB. J Foot Ankle Res. 2008 Jul 31;1(1):6. doi: 10.1186/1757-1146-1-6.

23. The foot posture index: anthropometric determinants and influence of sex, Sánchez Rodríguez R, Martínez Nova A, Escamilla Martínez E, Gómez Martín B, Martínez Quintana R, Pedrera Zamorano JD. Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2013 Sep-Oct;103(5):400-4.

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