Conditions/Injuries

Foot Arthritis

What is foot arthritis?

Foot arthritis occurs when cartilage in one or more of the foot joints gradually erodes. Cartilage is a rubbery tissue that allows bones to glide smoothly over one another. Without the cushioning effect of cartilage, the bones of the joint rub together. The foot can't move easily and becomes stiff, swollen and painful, particularly when walking.

There are several types of foot arthritis:

  • Osteoarthritis is the most common form. Also called "wear and tear" arthritis, it is a progressive, degenerative disease in which the surface layer of cartilage slowly wears away. Osteoarthritis is especially prevalent among middle-aged and older adults. Obesity and genetics are also contributing factors.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition that destroys joint cartilage. It can occur at any age and generally affects both feet.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis can develop after an injury to the foot or ankle. It is similar to osteoarthritis and may result from a fracture, severe sprain or ligament injury.

Which joints are most susceptible to foot arthritis?

The foot is very complex, with 28 bones and more than 30 joints. Arthritis can affect any of these joints. However, it is most common in the three joints that involve the heel bone, inner mid-foot bone and outer mid-foot bone; the joint of the big toe and foot bone; and the joint where the ankle and shinbone meet.

What are the symptoms of foot arthritis?

Symptoms of foot arthritis typically include:

  • Tenderness or pain
  • Reduced ability to move, walk or bear weight
  • Balance issues
  • Stiffness or swelling in the joint

How is foot arthritis diagnosed?

In addition to a physical exam and health history, your doctor can use specific tests, including X-rays, MRIs or CT scans, to diagnose foot arthritis.

What is the treatment?

There is no cure for foot arthritis, but proper treatment can slow its progression, reduce pain and increase function. Patients are encouraged to try these non-operative options first:

  • Weight loss
    Simple weight loss can reduce stress on the joint. If you're overweight, losing just five percent of your current weight can improve your arthritis symptoms.
  • Exercise/Physical therapy
    Exercise is important to lubricate the joint, strengthen surrounding muscles, maintain bone strength and control weight. Non-impact exercises are best. Your doctor or physical therapist can help develop an individualized exercise program that meets your needs and lifestyle.
  • Medication
    Acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and topical creams and sprays can combat pain and inflammation. If over-the-counter medications don't provide relief, your doctor may give you a prescription anti-inflammatory drug or other medication to help ease the pain.
  • Injections
    Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can be injected directly into the foot to help temporarily relieve pain.
  • Custom braces and supports
    These may include pads or arch supports, specially made orthotics or shoes, and canes or braces to support the joints.

If these non-operative treatments don't work, surgery may be necessary. The type of surgery you have depends on the severity and extent of your arthritis. Sometimes, more than one type of surgery is necessary. It's important that a qualified foot surgeon assess your condition to determine the option that is best for you.

The most common surgical treatments for foot arthritis include:

  • Arthroscopic debridement. The surgeon uses using tiny instruments to clean the joint area of foreign or inflamed tissue and bone spurs. It may be helpful in the early stages of arthritis.
  • Triple arthrodesis (fusion). The surgeon fuses together three bones in the back of the foot with rods, pins, screws or plates. If there is significant bone loss, a bone graft may be needed to aid healing.

Recovery time varies by patient and the procedure performed. Advancements in minimally invasive approaches and refined surgical techniques have dramatically reduced recovery time. For most patients, the typical recovery period is now weeks rather than months.