When you consider the active and exhausting life of an athlete, it’s hard to imagine a part of the body that endures more hardship than the feet. Whether it’s football, track, soccer, basketball, softball, tennis or any other sport, the feet provide the foundation for every type of athletic activity.
As track star at St. Louis High School, Kaitlyn Tunks counted on her feet to take her to a championship, and possibly – hopefully – a college scholarship and the Olympics some day. "Running is more than a sport to me – it’s become part of who I am. You’re competing against other people, but you’re also competing with yourself, and constantly pushing to excel and outperform your last, best time. I just love to run.”
But two years ago when Katilyn, then a sophomore, began having pain in her arches and legs, she worried that her running career might be over before it really even began. "It started out as an ache, but got a lot worse. I had shooting pain down my shins and my arches were really tight and painful. It definitely affected my performance and I was really worried about how – or if – I’d be able to get past it.”
She saw Dr. Tyson Green, foot and ankle specialist at the Center for Orthopaedics and team doctor for McNeese Athletics. "Kaitlyn’s problems were not unusual at all for a runner, or really for any elite athlete who trains and competes at that upper level,” says Dr. Green. "We see these type of lower extremity overuse injuries in our offices all the time. The athletes typically assume their problems originate from overuse, poor form or excessive training, and while these may all be part of the cause, there’s usually a bigger, underlying problem with a critical piece of their sports equipment. They are really surprised when I explain that the equipment I’m referring to is their athletic shoe, and even more specifically, the inside of it.”
Dr. Green explains that shoe manufacturers skimp on the inside of the shoe to boost the features and aesthetics of the outside of the shoe. "Let’s face it, most people buy a shoe based on what they can see and feel on the outside, so it’s really not that surprising to find that even the most expensive, higher-end sports shoes have inadequate support on the inside. In fact, that’s why the insole of most shoes slides right out, making it easy to replace with an orthotic insert of your own choosing.”
A custom orthotic insert is what Dr. Green recommended for Kaitlyn. "Kaitlyn was exhibiting classic overuse injury symptoms, primarily shin splints, that occur very often in runners. There can be the result of overtraining, biomechanical problems, stance, pattern of running, surface and other factors, but all of these contribution factors can often be corrected with the right orthotic insert.”
He says pre-fabricated inserts are available, but recommends purchasing these from a qualified provider to ensure that you are getting a quality product that can handle the demands an athlete will put on it. "For someone without any problems who just wants extra support and added injury prevention, a good quality, pre-fab insert may meet their needs. However, for extremely active athletes and those involved in higher levels of competitive sports, a custom insert is often a smarter option. These offer much more benefits for both injury prevention and performance enhancement.”
Every person’s foot is different, and every athlete plays different positions and approaches their play in different ways, explains Dr. Green. "A golfer places different demands on their foot than a tennis player or distance runner; a wide receiver for a football team will have different needs than a defensive back. All these factors play a role in creating the most effective insert possible. We make a custom cast of each foot and include details about the athlete’s sport, their specific position and level of play. This information is used to manufacture their custom insert. Once we receive it, my staff and I evaluate the fit and make adjustments as needed, right here in our office.”
In addition to stabilizing and cushioning the foot, custom inserts have been shown to increase muscle efficiency and decrease pain associated with common athletic foot movements, like quick starts and stops or landing on uneven surfaces, according to Dr. Green. "When individualized needs are worked into the customized product, the foot is controlled, guided and limited in ways that work best at preventing injury and increasing performance. Consider Kaitlyn’s shin splints as a specific example. The arch of the foot plays a role in triggering this painful condition. When the arch is controlled in an effective way, the risk of developing shin splints decreases.”
Dr. Green and his team have been working with McNeese athletics, providing custom inserts for the football team this past season. "We had had a lot of lower extremity injures over the prior seasons, 2010 – 2012, and I asked the Center for Orthopaedics’ doctors for their help in reducing these types of injuries,” said MSU Head Football Coach Matt Viator. "Dr. Green suggested doing custom inserts for all the players. The entire process was way more detailed than I expected. They came to our training camp last summer and looked at foot-to-ground contact, broke down the movements of positions, and even how individual players moved in those positions. They made casts of each players’ foot, created their custom inserts and fit them themselves, monitoring the players’ performance throughout the season. Not only did we have a dramatic reduction in injuries for the 2013 season, we also noticed increased speed and agility.”
Kaitlyn reports similar dramatic results. "After I got my inserts, my arch and leg pain went away pretty quickly, and my times improved a lot,” she said.
Just how much did her time improve? Last year, as a junior, Kaitlyn was the state outdoor champion in the 800, and the runner up for the 400. She’s already signed a letter of intent for track with Northwestern Louisiana University and she is more committed than ever to making her dream of competing in the Olympics a reality.
"This is just another way to protect yourself and step up your athletic performance,” Dr. Green says. "In my opinion, you should be as safe as possible in sports, and always protect one of your most important assets—your feet.”