Foot osteoarthritis – causes, diagnosis and treatment

Last modified: December 12, 2019

Overview of osteoarthritis in the foot/ankle

We have cartilage in all our joints and cartilage is affected by osteoarthritis, this means that any joint can be affected by osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis in the ankle affects approximately 17% of adults over 50. Unfortunately there is considerably less research about this compared to osteoarthritis in the knees and hips. Exercise has been shown to be effective for foot osteoarthritis, just like for other types of osteoarthritis, but other solutions are also available.

Signs of foot osteoarthritis

There are many large and small joints (33 in total) in the foot. This means that osteoarthritis in the foot or ankle can present itself in different ways depending on which of the joints is affected. The most common symptom is pain when walking or running, often in combination with stiffness. However, people also experience swelling of the foot or coarsening around the affected joint.

Causes of osteoarthritis in the foot

Just as in other types of osteoarthritis, in the foot or ankle it is a result of a negative change and slow thinning out of the cartilage in the affected joint. Why this happens is not completely clear. On the other hand, known risk factors for osteoarthritis in the foot include excessive weight (more weight than the joints in the feet can support) and previous damage to the joint. Congenital deformities of the foot may also contribute to the development of osteoarthritis in the long term.

Diagnosing osteoarthritis in the foot

Osteoarthritis in the foot or ankle is usually diagnosed by looking at the medical history and typical symptoms. A physician or physiotherapist can then carry out a physical examination to confirm the suspicion of osteoarthritis. X-ray is sometimes used to determine the degree of osteoarthritis. This is mainly used if the person seeking care is in so much pain that an operation may be considered or if the treatment provided is not working. So, according to the current recommendations, no X-ray is required to make a diagnosis of osteoarthritis. It is also quite unusual to require an MRI scan. This is only used to distinguish osteoarthritis from other conditions with similar symptoms such as damage to the joints, ligaments or muscles.

Treating osteoarthritis in the foot

As in other types of osteoarthritis, physical activity is recommended to treat osteoarthritis in the foot and the ankle. You should learn this type of exercise from a physiotherapist to ensure that you are putting the right type of strain on your feet. Since our feet support our entire body, it may be necessary to lose weight to reduce the strain on the feet.

Other treatment methods for osteoarthritis in the foot

It may also be a good idea to review the form on your feet and foot arches. It may be possible to reduce pain from osteoarthritis by changing the load on your foot or ankle. For example, inserts in your shoes, known as orthotics, may reduce the burden on the joints in your foot. For osteoarthritis in the front part of the foot, shoes with rocker soles might be an option. Rocker soles can be attached to your shoes by an orthopedic engineer.

Simple analgesic tablets can alleviate the symptoms or osteoarthritis in the short term. You can usually purchase these without a prescription, but you should always discuss medications with your treating physician if you take other medication or have other diseases. Cortisone injections into the joint affected by osteoarthritis is a popular and effective way to alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis. However, the effect of cortisone is limited and symptoms will usually return unchanged after a while. However, it can be a good solution to get you started with exercise of the foot and ankle or while you are getting used to and adapting your foot to orthotics.

For pronounced osteoarthritis with many symptoms, various types of stiffening operations are a good solution to treat the pain, even if this can unfortunately restrict movement. Orthoses, which are soft dressings for the feet, may be a solution if the patient does not want to undergo an operation or has other conditions which make an operation impossible. The most common operation when treating osteoarthritis in the foot is on the base joint of the big toe, hallux rigidus This operation usually provides effective pain relief and function.

Continue reading about hand osteoarthritis.