Arthritis is one of the most common foot and ankle problems we see at Family Foot and Ankle Center, especially among older patients. Even if you don’t suffer from this condition yourself, most of us at least have someone close—a parent or grandparent, a sibling, a friend—who suffers from aching, debilitating joint pain.
The term “arthritis” is actually a bit of a catch-all term for any kind of pain or swelling in a joint. There are actually many possible causes and a few different categories. The most common include osteoarthritis, post-traumatic arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type—when people just say “arthritis,” this is usually what they mean. This joint condition is caused by the accumulation of wear and tear on bones and joints over the course of a lifetime, which is why it’s associated so strongly with age.
Slowly (usually over the course of many years), the soft cartilage that cushions and protects joints grinds down due to injury, inflammation, and overuse. As we get older, that cartilage loses the ability to heal itself from damage, and symptoms gradually worsen.
Post-traumatic arthritis can be traced to a major injury (such as a fracture or dislocation) rather than ordinary wear and tear. Whether symptoms are immediate or delayed, a joint that has suffered a traumatic injury is several times as likely to eventually develop symptoms as one that has never been injured, even if the initial injury was quickly and completely corrected.
In this condition, the damage to the joints isn’t caused by mechanical processes, but by an inflammatory disease. Essentially, your immune system becomes confused and attacks the cartilage in your joints. Although we don’t yet know what causes rheumatoid arthritis, in most cases there is some sort of trigger that catalyzes a flare-up—for example, an infection.
Symptoms of Swollen, Stiff Joints
Regardless of what caused your condition, symptoms are fairly consistent across the board. Affected joints become stiff and swollen, reducing your range of motion and causing tenderness and pain. You may even have difficulty walking or bearing your own weight.
The most commonly affected joints in the foot include your ankle, joints in the hindfoot and midfoot, and your big toe.
Treating Stiff Foot and Ankle Joints
Despite the lack of a “cure,” there are steps you can take—both at home and with the help of specialists—in order to manage the symptoms. Many people can and do still live healthy, active lives despite foot and ankle arthritis.
When pain and swelling flare up, over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (if approved by your doctor) can soothe aches. If necessary, we may prescribe stronger medications or inject steroids into the joint for tougher pain.
Shoe modifications or mechanical aids can provide needed support for tender spots. Often, a comfortable, cushioned pair of shoes that fits properly is the most important tool you can use—if you need help figuring out what to look for, we can give you a few pointers. For others, over-the-counter insoles, custom orthotics made by our office, braces, arch supports, and other assistive devices can be quite beneficial.
Physical therapy and stretching to loosen joints and strengthen supporting muscles and tendons, reducing pain and defending against further damage. Stretch your calf and Achilles by placing your hands against a wall with one foot forward and one foot back. You can also stretch and strengthen your big toe by pulling it, stretching it against a rubber band, and using your feet to pick up marbles or a towel.
In rare and severe cases, surgery may be considered. Procedures may include debridement (where joints are “cleaned” of foreign objects or swollen tissues), fusion (where bones are fused together, preventing any further movement in the joint), or even a complete replacement of the joint with an artificial replacement.
Living with arthritis doesn’t have to mean living in pain, or remaining sedentary. Let Family Foot and Ankle Center help you manage this common foot and ankle problem. Give us a call at (513) 728-4800 in Ohio, or (859) 282-1572 in Kentucky, to set up an appointment at one of our six convenient Greater Cincinnati locations. You can also reach us through this website.