Watching a toddler wobbling through their first steps (accompanied, of course, by their inevitable falls) is a cute and tender moment. Watching an adult toddle and wobble while they walk due to ankle pain and tenderness isn’t quite as endearing.
One of the most common causes of this ankle pain is ankle arthritis. And while the word “arthritis” may conjure images of elderly individuals who warn you not to crack your knuckles, arthritis can strike before you reach retirement age.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is inflammation of a joint. It can cause tenderness, stiffness, and pain. Typically, arthritis worsens with age, but inflammatory arthritis can inflict anyone.
While there is no magic pill to cure arthritis symptoms, a skilled foot and ankle specialist can guide you through some treatments and therapies that may reduce their intensity and improve your quality of life.
Foot and Ankle Arthritis
Five types of arthritis can affect the feet and ankles.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Also known as inflammatory arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks itself. An early sign of rheumatoid arthritis is difficulty walking up inclines such as ramps or stairs.
- Osteoarthritis: This common form of arthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease. It happens as the cartilage around the ankle deteriorates over time.
- Post-traumatic arthritis: Any injury to the ankle can put you at risk for developing post-traumatic arthritis, even years later. Damage to the ankle cartilage can cause premature deterioration, causing arthritis to manifest earlier than it would normally.
- Reactive arthritis: Did you know a UTI could put you at risk for arthritis? Reactive arthritis occurs after an infection in the urinary, gastrointestinal, or genital systems. This arthritis hits ankles, knees, and feet.
- Gout: High levels of uric acid in the blood can lead to gout. The uric acid accumulates into lumps called gout tophi, and those lumps irritate and aggravate joints.
Symptoms of Ankle Arthritis
The main symptom of any form of ankle arthritis is ankle pain. It can also be accompanied by some of these other symptoms:
- Swelling in the joints
- Redness around the joints
- Difficulty walking
Diagnosing Ankle Arthritis
A certified foot and ankle specialist or podiatrist, you can accurately diagnose your ankle pain. Your medical history will help paint a picture for your provider. They will examine the foot and ankle, noting the tender spots and looking for swelling.
An MRI, CT scan, or X-ray will help provide a more in-depth look at the ankle. If inflammatory arthritis is suspected, they may perform a blood test. If your podiatrist suspects gout, the fluid around the ankle joints might be tested for uric acid crystals.
How to Treat Arthritis of the Ankle
The best course of action is to try conservative methods first. If these help, more invasive treatments won’t be necessary. Conservative ankle arthritis treatments include:
- Bracing the ankle
- Oral corticosteroids
- Corticosteroid injections
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Physical therapy
- Activity modification
- Weight loss
- Topical creams
- Footwear modification
If these do not provide any relief, you may need more invasive procedures to help you. These procedures would include:
- Ankle replacement surgery – Removing the damaged cartilage and bones and replacing it with a metal and plastic prosthesis is known as arthroplasty. This increases the range of motion for the patient and has a relatively quick recovery period.
- Ankle fusion – Also known as arthrodesis, ankle fusion involves fusing the ankle bones together after the joint has been cleaned out. The bones are fused with bone grafts, screws, and plates. Range of motion is limited as the joint can no longer move. Ankle fusion changes the way you walk, which can put wear and tear on other parts of your body.
- Ankle distraction arthroplasty – Instead of completely removing and replacing the ankle joint, an ankle distraction arthroplasty is a more intricate procedure that restores the damaged ankle joint instead of completely replacing it. This preserves the flexibility of the joint.
- Ankle arthroscopic repair – For ankles in the early stages of arthritis, arthroscopic repair can help regain range of motion and reduce pain. An ankle arthroscopic repair involves a laparoscopic procedure that cleans out the affected joint. This procedure won’t work if too much of the cartilage has worn away.
If you believe you may be suffering from ankle arthritis, consult with an ankle specialist as soon as possible. The earlier it is caught, the more options you have for treating your arthritis. With a good podiatrist on your side, you’ll be back to walking normally in no time.