Can flat feet improve with treatment?

The use of exercises to correct flat feet is a practice that goes back at least a century. Recent research has shown that exercises are effective at improving the arches in some people with flexible flat feet who are otherwise without foot problems or injuries.

Since every individual is different, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. The best approach is one tailored to meet each person’s unique needs.

I certainly think it’s possible for many cases of flexible flat feet to improve with exercise and research supports this.

I was able to build arches in my previously flat feet after several months with a program of stretches and strengthening exercises. My personal experience going through this process laid the foundation for the method I developed for treating other people with flat feet.

What Evidence Is There That Flat Feet Can Be Corrected?

Some of the best information I’ve found related to correcting flat feet comes from over 100 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, the use of exercise to correct flat feet was apparently a common practice.

Historical Treatment of Flat Feet

Dr. Royal Whitman, a prominent orthopedic surgeon of that time, is quoted as saying “flat-foot is an acquired weakness and is understood to be preventable and curable”.

In a book originally published in 1909, physician and sculptor Robert Tait McKenzie wrote about the treatment of flat feet with exercise.1 He included before and after pictures of footprints showing the improvement from following an exercise program.

The progress in those footprints was similar to the progress I achieved using a program of stretching and strengthening exercises.

He wrote that exercises were often combined with the use of supports, like metal plates or bandages, but emphasized that these should only be used temporarily.

Recent Evidence

At the time I started developing my program, the only related study I found was from 1987, showing that the shape of the arch can be improved by increasing barefoot activity.2

However, in the last few years, several new studies have been published showing that foot strengthening exercises can improve the arch.3,4,5,6,7

One thing to note about these studies is that they are usually done with young, healthy adults and exclude people with foot problems or injuries.

And even then, the amount of improvement varies among the participants.

However, studies are not necessarily designed to produce the best outcome. And typically a study will only look at the effects of one or two exercises.

What worked best for me was a comprehensive program of stretching, strengthening, and being mindful of the way I stood and walked.

Some Exceptions

It’s important to note that when I refer to correcting flat feet, I’m only talking about the flexible type. There are many conditions or injuries that alter the normal anatomy and function of the foot that make it unlikely for the arch shape to change without surgery.

One example would be a rigid flat foot which is often the result of how the bones are shaped or formed in the foot.

These differences don’t necessarily mean that the function of the foot can’t be improved, only that a different approach is needed for these cases.

Disclaimer: The content here is designed for information and education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.

References

  1. McKenzie RT. Exercise in education and medicine. WB Saunders Company; 1909.
  2. Robbins SE, Hanna AM. Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1987 Apr 1;19(2):148-56.
  3. Kim EK, Kim JS. The effects of short foot exercises and arch support insoles on improvement in the medial longitudinal arch and dynamic balance of flexible flatfoot patients. Journal of physical therapy science. 2016;28(11):3136-9.
  4. Sulowska I, Oleksy Ł, Mika A, Bylina D, Sołtan J. The influence of plantar short foot muscle exercises on foot posture and fundamental movement patterns in long-distance runners, a non-randomized, non-blinded clinical trial. PloS one. 2016 Jun 23;11(6):e0157917.
  5. Goo YM, Kim TH, Lim JY. The effects of gluteus maximus and abductor hallucis strengthening exercises for four weeks on navicular drop and lower extremity muscle activity during gait with flatfoot. Journal of physical therapy science. 2016;28(3):911-5.
  6. Russell RM, Simmons S. The effects of barefoot running on overpronation in runners. International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings 2016 (Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 42).
  7. Mulligan EP, Cook PG. Effect of plantar intrinsic muscle training on medial longitudinal arch morphology and dynamic function. Manual therapy. 2013 Oct 1;18(5):425-30.