London: A new study has revealed that club feet- a physical disorder in which the ankle is twisted, affects one in 800 babies.

In two-third cases, both feet are affected. Kids born with club feet would once have faced major surgery and months of painful rehabilitation for a chance to walk normally.

Not any more, thanks to the new treatment which uses a special pair of shoes, a newspaper reported.

The multi-stage procedure, pioneered at the Coventry University Hospital, involves a minimally invasive operation under local anaesthesia to release the Achilles tendon, which anchors the calf muscle to the heel. This tendon is especially tight in those with club feet.

Following this, the feet are encased in a cast, from below the knee, for three weeks while the tendon heals. The cast is made from a special flexible plaster-like substance that can be unwrapped like a bandage.

Once a week the cast is removed, and the feet manually manipulated to move them gradually into the correct position. The cast is then replaced to hold the limb in position, say doctors.

Traditionally, babies would have been placed in plaster from hip to toe, but this further affected normal development. In the new process the knee is free to flex so muscle development is not hindered.

When the cast is removed, special lace-up shoes held in place by a metal bar are worn, holding the feet in the corrected position. The feet stay in the boots for 23 hours every day for three months and then at night for a further three to four years.

"Before this new approach, children would undergo major surgery when they were nine months old. The foot was essentially taken apart and then put back together, stabilized with wires. Recovery from this is very painful and, of course, there are risks of infection.

"This method meant walking was delayed for a long time and because of this sometimes patients would never walk completely normally. Now we begin treatment one week after birth, placing the feet in the cast to begin moving them while the bones are still soft.

"Not only is the process far less painful and risk-free, but the child also ends up with a more flexible foot," said Dr Irene van der Ploeg, consultant paediatric orthopaedic surgeon.