Orthopedics

Relief for your achy feet: How to ease the pain of osteoarthritis

July 15, 2021
A woman is sitting on an examination table in a doctor's office.

Feeling a lot of pain and stiffness in your foot and ankle? The culprit could be osteoarthritis. To pinpoint the source of your pain and the best treatment, it’s a good idea to consult an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon. This specially trained medical doctor is an expert in treating all aspects of foot and ankle pain – whether you actually need surgery or not. 

What is osteoarthritis of the foot and ankle?

Osteoarthritis develops as the cartilage in your foot and ankle breaks down and deteriorates. Cartilage is a tough, flexible tissue that cushions your bones as you move – allowing your bones to glide easily.

“If your cartilage is worn away, the bones tend to rub against each other, and that friction causes pain. This condition is called osteoarthritis,” explains Jeffrey Levy, D.O., a fellowship-trained foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon with Riverside Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists.

If you were to examine the inside of your foot, you would see more than 26 bones and 30 joints. Osteoarthritis can develop in any one of these places. 

“The bones and joints inside your foot work together with your muscles, tendons and ligaments to help you bear weight and control your movements. But the breakdown of cartilage in these joints – the osteoarthritis – is painful and limits your ability to walk and perform normal everyday activities,” explains Dr. Levy.

What causes osteoarthritis (cartilage breakdown) in the foot and ankle? 

Think of osteoarthritis as a “wear and tear” injury in your foot. Typically, your cartilage wears out as you age. Or, it wears out with overuse. 

Injury

Sometimes people develop osteoarthritis in the years following a traumatic injury, such as a: 

  • Broken bone in the foot
  • Severe ankle sprain
  • Torn ligament
  • Jammed toe 

Abnormal foot mechanics

Another cause of osteoarthritis is abnormal foot mechanics. For example, maybe you have flat feet or high arches. Those flat feet may put too much strain on the joints, causing a breakdown of the cartilage. On the other hand, if your foot has a high arch, it may be rigid and may not move well – causing the joints to rub together and increasing your risk of osteoarthritis.  

Obesity

Excess weight puts pressure on your bones and joints too, says Dr. Levy, which also leads to deterioration of cartilage. 

What are the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis? 

If osteoarthritis has developed in your foot or ankle, you may notice: 

  • Pain 
  • Stiffness  
  • Swelling and inflammation 
  • Redness
  • A bone spur (bump or protrusion on which blisters and calluses form)

With these symptoms, it’s hard to move your foot. And walking is painful too. It’s important to seek treatment from an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon to reduce the risk of more damage and deformity. 

Diagnosis and treatment for your painful feet

To diagnose osteoarthritis, Dr. Levy will examine your foot closely. Your doctor may also order X-rays to check the location and severity of the osteoarthritis. Or, you may need a bone scan, a CT scan or an MRI. 

Treating osteoarthritis – without surgery 

First, he may recommend non-surgical treatments to ease your pain – and minimize further damage. 

These treatments may include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen)
  • Cast or boot (to immobilize the joint and reduce inflammation)
  • Custom bracing (to support the joint and reduce pain)
  • Steroid medications
  • Orthotic shoe inserts
  • Physical therapy (to strengthen the muscles and give you more stability)
  • Weight loss (to reduce pressure on the bones and joints) 
  • Injections 
     
With injections, your orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon may deliver steroids or other treatments directly to the painful part of your foot. 

Treating osteoarthritis with surgery 

If nonsurgical treatments do not relieve your pain and restore your mobility, he may suggest surgery.

“In some cases, we clean the arthritic join by removing bone spurs that restrict your movement,” explains Dr. Levy. “If the patient’s arthritis is advanced, we can fuse the joint, stopping the motion that’s causing the pain. Or, we can perform a joint replacement. When making a treatment recommendation, we consider which part of your foot is involved, our lifestyle and your goals for the future.”

To learn how to ease your pain and regain mobility, it’s a good idea to visit a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon like Dr. Levy who has special training in this method.

To make an appointment with Dr. Levy, please call

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