Osteoarthritis in the toes

Last modified: December 17, 2018

About osteoarthritis in the toes

Osteoarthritis is a chronic disease that causes age-related changes of the cartilage in the joints and can cause great pain and discomfort. All the joints in the body are equipped with cartilage, which helps them slide easier against each other. When the cartilage breaks down, which is something that happens gradually, pain and stiffness can occur (both during and after movement). When osteoarthritis in the toes develops, there is no absolute cure, but it is possible to reduce the pain and discomfort.

In order to reduce the symptoms of the affected joint, it is important to start the treatment early. For example, you can start an exercise program with various exercises that strengthen the muscles around the joint. Exercise programs are offered around the country at various osteoarthritis training courses, but it is also possible to consult a physiotherapist immediately, online.

Signs of osteoarthritis in the toes

Osteoarthritis in the toes or feet almost always starts with pain as the primary symptom. Often, this is mainly experienced in the joint of the big toe, but it is even common in the second toe. You may also feel a certain stiffness that can gradually come to accompany the pain. Other symptoms of osteoarthritis in the toes are:

Pain when you stress the foot (e.g. during walking)
Stiffness in the toes, that is mostly noticeable when you have to extend the step during walking
Recurring swelling in the toes
Resting pain (i.e. pain even when sitting still or sleeping)
Those who recognize these symptoms and want to figure out the reason for them should visit a doctor or physiotherapist.

Reasons for osteoarthritis in the toes

Osteoarthritis in the toes can affect anyone, but is most common with increasing age, from 50 years and upwards. The cause of the disease is not yet clarified, but in many cases, overloading in various forms plays a significant role. Those who, for example, have had a particularly heavy physical work life with high stress on the joints are at the most risk. Likewise, people who are overweight and top athletes are also at higher risk levels. Osteoarthritis in the big toe and other toes is also common among runners. This is not particularly strange, since runners often expose the foot to extended, heavy loads. What’s important for people who like to run and want to avoid osteoarthritis is to try to perform a correct running style as much as possible.

Diagnose osteoarthritis in the toes

When it comes to diagnosing osteoarthritis, this should be done by a general doctor, physiotherapist, or orthopedist. They can then look at the symptoms, previous medical history and how good the joint function is.

X-rays can be used to see how far advanced the disease is and how big the changes are in the cartilage, but osteoarthritis is primarly a clinical diagnosis. On an x-ray, it is also difficult to evaluate the changes found in the cartilage, in relation to the symptoms. The affected person can experience both pain and stiffness, but according to the x-ray film there may be few to no changes. X-rays are, therefore, a bad method to diagnose osteoarthritis, since the changes are seen late and are not in relation to the symptoms. More information about how the diagnosis is made is available here.

Treating osteoarthritis in the toes

Osteoarthritis in the toes or feet affects mobility differently for different people, and it can feel limiting for those who are used to being physically active and who exercise a lot. Most forms of osteoarthritis will improve if the affected person performs some kind of physical activity. It may sound a bit ironic, since many runners who are physically active suffer from osteoarthritis. Proper exercises that are performed in the right way bring long-term symptom relief and a better quality of life for many who are affetcted by osteoarthritis. However, the problem with osteoarthritis in the toes is that it often is very painful to exercise since the stress and the movement is located on the feet. The good news is that the problems do not get worse, even if it hurts.

Other treatments for osteoarthritis in the toes

For a person affected with osteoarthritis, it is important to realize that this is a disease that can’t be cured, though a large portion of affected people can find strategies to reduce the pain and the discomfort that comes with the condition.

There are several aids that can help. For example, a good shoe with a thick and slightly stiffer sole can offer support and help the joints not to move so much. If necessary, you can also get help to manufacture a specially designed sole for your shoes, a so-called rolling sole. This allows you to roll the step without having to bend the big toe joint. For those who suffer from severe discomfort caused by osteoarthritis the toes, a cane or other aids may be needed. At milder discomfort, pain relief in the form of painkillers may help temporarily. Even an injection of cortisone in the big toe joint will only provide temporary relief.

If the recommended treatment methods don’t work, a last resort in the form of surgical treatment is available. There are several surgical methods to choose from, depending on how far advanced the osteoarthritis is. Orthopaedic surgeons recommend which operation is most suitable on the basis of the clinical examination and x-ray results.