Ankle Fusion to Treat Severe Pain of Arthritis

Does ankle fusion surgery relieve arthritis pain in the ankle?

The legendary actress Bette Davis is quoted as saying “Old age is no place for sissies.” She might well have been talking about the seemingly inevitable manner in which the body rapidly starts racking up aches and pains as we get older. Arthritis would likely top that list for the vast majority of people who reach the age of 60 and beyond.  

What we refer to as arthritis is actually an umbrella term for more than a hundred forms of the condition that is defined by painful inflammation and stiffness in the joints. The three types of arthritis that most often affect the ankle are:

  • Osteoarthritis, wear and tear that, over time, causes the cartilage protecting the bones in the joint to break down and ultimately disintegrate, allowing the bones to painfully rub together
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease caused when there is a glitch in the body’s immune system that results in it attacking itself; in this case, the ankle joint
  • Post-traumatic arthritis, which is the result of trauma or a previous injury to the joint

The older we get, the more likely we are to experience the pain, swelling, stiffness and impaired mobility that comes with osteoarthritis, which is most often the type of arthritis that affects the ankle joint. The progression is usually gradual, but the ankle is such a key load-bearing joint that, once the deterioration of the cartilage reaches a certain point, the intensity of pain can make walking or even standing difficult.  

Ankle Fusion to Relieve Arthritis Pain

Depending on the level of pain and incapacity created by the arthritis, there is a range of treatment options. Initially, your healthcare professional will likely recommend some combination of the following nonsurgical methods:

  • Medications to relieve pain
  • Anti-inflammatory medications to address joint swelling
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Orthotics
  • Insole supports and pads
  • Custom-made footwear
  • Canes, braces or other types of load-reducing supports
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss

If these treatment options are not successful and the level of pain and impaired mobility is significantly affecting your daily activities and quality of life, your orthopedist may recommend ankle fusion surgery. 

Also known as ankle arthrodesis, ankle fusion surgery is just that; the fusing together of bones of the ankle so that they can no longer rub together and cause the pain associated with degenerative osteoarthritis. An incision is made and the cartilage and any bits of bone fragments are removed. Then, using plates, screws or pins, the affected bones are joined together. 

Recovery will require a cast for the first couple of weeks and the foot should be kept elevated as much as possible for a week or two. There should not be any weight put on the ankle for at least six weeks and after that, the individual will be in a walking cast for an additional six weeks. 

Because the bones are no longer rubbing together, the patient can expect the pain and inflammation to be gone, or, at least, dramatically reduced. Patients will have been advised that a decrease in what had been their normal level of mobility may be experienced by some, but this is often considered a fair exchange for pain reduction and the ability to return to activities that had become difficult, if not impossible. 

If you have questions about arthritis in the ankle or about any foot or ankle concerns, Dr. Christopher Hubbard is a board-certified Orthopedic Surgeon and is the former Chief of the Foot and Ankle Service at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in NYC. To schedule an appointment, or if you just have questions, please use our convenient online contact form by clicking here.