There are more than 100 different types of arthritis. But when most people talk about arthritis, they are usually referring to the most common form, osteoarthritis ("osteo" means bone). Osteoarthritis develops as we age and is often called "wear-and-tear" arthritis. Over the years, the thin covering (cartilage) on the ends of bones becomes worn and frayed. This results in inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joint.
An injury to a joint, even if treated properly, can cause osteoarthritis to develop in the future. This is often referred to as traumatic arthritis. It may develop months or years after a severe sprain, torn ligament or broken bone.
There are 28 bones and over 30 joints in the foot. Tough bands of tissue, called ligaments, hold the bones and joints in place. If arthritis develops in one or more of these joints, your balance and walk may be affected. The foot joints most commonly affected by arthritis include:
Signs and symptoms of arthritis of the foot vary, depending on which joint is affected. Common symptoms include pain or tenderness, stiffness or reduced motion, and swelling. Walking may be difficult.
Your doctor will begin by getting your medical history and giving you a physical exam. Among the questions you may be asked are:
Your doctor may do a gait analysis. This shows how the bones in your leg and foot line up as you walk, measures your stride, and tests the strength of your ankles and feet. You may also need some diagnostic tests. X-rays can show changes in the spacing between bones or in the shape of the bones themselves. A bone scan, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance image (MRI) may also be used in the evaluation.
Depending on the type, location and severity of your arthritis, there are many types of treatment available. Nonsurgical treatment options include:
If your arthritis doesn't respond to such conservative treatments, surgical options are available. The type of surgery that's best for you will depend on the type of arthritis you have, the impact of the disease on your joints, and the location of the arthritis. Sometimes more than one type of surgery will be needed. The primary surgeries performed for arthritis of the foot and ankle are:
Initially, foot and ankle surgery can be quite painful, so you will be given pain relievers both in the hospital and after you are released. After surgery, you will have to restrict activities for a time. You may have to wear a cast and use crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair, depending on the type of surgery you had. Keeping your foot elevated above the level of your heart will be very important for the first week or so.
You will not be able to put any weight on your foot for at least four to six weeks, and full recovery takes four to nine months. You may also need to participate in a physical therapy program for several months to regain strength in the foot and restore range of motion. Usually, you can return to ordinary daily activities in three to four months, although you may have to wear special shoes or braces. In the vast majority of cases, surgery brings pain relief and makes it easier for you to do daily activities.