Understanding Orthotics

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The human musculoskeletal system is a masterstroke of evolution. This is especially true when it comes to movement and support. However, it’s far from perfect and by no means impervious to damage and destruction.

This is where orthotics come into play. This medical specialization involves the use of devices known as orthotics to modify and correct the function and structure of a person’s musculoskeletal system. The medical specialists in charge of prescribing, manufacturing, and managing the use of orthoses are referred to as orthotists.

A lower-limb orthotic device could be as simple as a shoe insert or as complex as a brace that extends from the ankle up to the thigh. In some cases, a person may be prescribed an orthosis apparatus that gets attached to the waist or torso. No matter how the orthosis looks, its purpose is generally the same: counteract an existing condition in which a person’s skeleton is causing them pain or impairment.

While lower-limb orthoses are meant to help patients get their bodies to a point where discomfort and disfigurement are no longer an issue, they’re often cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear. It’s common for patients to get socks for orthosis devices to prevent chafing and provide cushioning. Similar to the trade-offs of wearing dental braces to align crooked teeth, those who wear orthoses have to find ways to overcome the short-term negatives in order to benefit from the long-term positives.

Upper-limb orthoses are also similarly used to treat injury or disease. Like those used for the lower body, upper body orthotics range in size and sophistication.  Simple wrist braces are used to restrict movement and promote healing in the aftermath of a sprain. Larger devices attached to the shoulder and bracing the clavicle are used after broken bones have healed and casts removed but the patient still needs to restrict their movements.

While custom-made prescribed orthotics are ideal for optimum healing and correction of major problems of the musculoskeletal system, less pressing issues can be addressed with over-the-counter devices. Walk into any drug store and you’ll find an aisle where these products are available to consumers without a prescription. Neck, shoulder, wrist, knee, leg, and foot braces are just some of the common over-the-counter orthoses devices being sold on a daily basis.

Many people need their orthotics to move without pain, but others wear these devices for corrective purposes that don’t necessarily cause them discomfort. As a result, a common dilemma facing orthotists is the reluctance of patients to wear their devices. The reasons include things like how orthotics interfere with clothing to the concern over how others perceive them. Perhaps the most common reason people don’t wear their orthoses is the most counterintuitive one: the device causes them pain and discomfort.

When patients aren’t wearing their orthotics as instructed, they prolong the time it will take for their musculoskeletal condition to be corrected. What’s more, they make it difficult for their orthotist to accurately monitor their progress. This is further complicated by the tendency of patients to lie about their inconsistent use of orthotics when asked. To be fair, it’s not uncommon for doctors and other medical professionals to deal with dishonesty in their patients, so they’re used to it. That said, it doesn’t diminish the difficulty that arises as a result of deception.

The key to increasing the number of patients wearing their orthotics in good faith comes down to reducing the discomfort these devices can cause. Since the most effective measures for doing so are things the patient must do on their own – like wearing socks designed to reduce chafing and provide cushioning – orthotists ought to spend more time explaining these measures to their patients. It also wouldn’t hurt for the medical industry to design and develop less obtrusive orthotics, but that’s several years away.