Foot and Ankle Osteoarthritis

Can osteoarthritis in the ankle lead to needing ankle replacement surgery?

Arthritis affects more than 50 million people just in the U.S. alone. It is an equal-opportunity disease, striking men and women of all ages and races, although it does seem to affect women more. Even children are not immune. In the United States, arthritis is the number one cause of disability. 

Over 100 different types of arthritis have been identified. Arthritis has become so common that many people do not realize just how significant it is, not only for the individual but also for the country as a whole. Current estimates show that the overall economic impact of arthritis, including the cost of medical care and loss of wages, is more than 300 billion dollars a year.  

The most common form of arthritis, by far, is osteoarthritis (OA). It is a degenerative joint disease that people have long considered to just be a natural part of “old age”. Often referred to as the “wear and tear” arthritis, OA is a result of the gradual loss of the cartilage that acts as a cushion between the bones in a joint. Over the years, especially in weight-bearing joints, the constant movement and stress placed on the joint causes the cartilage to break down and develop tiny tears. 

Osteoarthritis can affect anyone but some risk factors can up the chances of developing it. Being overweight seems to make people especially vulnerable to OA. Other common factors include heredity, having previously suffered an injury or infection in the joint, and any activity that puts increased pressure on the joint.

Eventually, there is simply not enough cartilage left to prevent the bones from rubbing against each other. When this happens, you end up with the pain, swelling, and loss of mobility associated with osteoarthritis. 

Osteoarthritis in the Foot and Ankle

We may hear more about osteoarthritis in the knees and hips but it is also a problem in the feet and ankles, which do their share of weight-bearing. What might indicate that you are starting to develop OA in a foot or ankle? Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Pain, especially during movement
  • Soreness or tenderness when touching the joint
  • Difficulty walking, standing, or simply putting any weight on the foot or ankle
  • Swelling, stiffness, or warmth in the joint area
  • Pain and swelling that is present, even after sitting or when waking in the morning

Treating Osteoarthritis in the Foot or Ankle

Treatment options for osteoarthritis in the foot or ankle will depend upon several different factors, such as the severity of the disease, the age and health of the patient, and the level of activity that the patient wants to be able to return to. In the beginning, your doctor will advise non-surgical options, like medications for pain and reducing inflammation, modifying activities, changing the type of shoes, using inserts, and wearing a supportive brace. If necessary, there may also be suggestions for physical therapy or cortisone injections.

If these conservative methods do not provide enough pain relief and restored mobility, surgery may be recommended. The surgical procedures for addressing damage due to osteoarthritis will typically involve either joint fusion or joint arthroplasty (replacement).

If you have questions about osteoarthritis or any other foot or ankle concerns, Dr. Christopher Hubbard is a board-certified Orthopedic Surgeon with Ortho-Care Wayne in Bergen County New Jersey, and is the former Chief of the Foot and Ankle Service at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in NYC.

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