The foot and ankle provide a variety of important functions needed for movement. When a person has arthritis in the foot, it can involve one or more joints and affect mobility.
Arthritis in the feet can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and, in some cases, joint deformity. Arthritis of the feet affects 1 in 6 people over 50 years old.
This article discusses arthritis, how it affects the feet, treatments, and more.
Arthritis describes over 100 different conditions that primarily affect the joints. Arthritis can cause joint stiffness, swelling, and pain. This can limit a person’s mobility, decrease quality of life, and result in disability.
Several types of arthritis can affect the feet. The most common types include:
- Osteoarthritis (OA): OA is a degenerative or “wear-and-tear” form of arthritis where the cartilage breaks down. It commonly affects people middle-aged and older, although it can affect anyone.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): RA is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation. It can affect several joints throughout the body, potentially leading to loss of function and deformity.
- Post-traumatic arthritis: This form of arthritis develops due to injury to the foot. Similar to OA, the cartilage between joints wears away. An injured joint is seven times more likely to develop arthritis than an uninjured joint, and symptoms may not occur until years after an injury.
Arthritis in the feet can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and, in some cases, deformity of the joints. Pain and stiffness generally develop slowly over time but can occur suddenly in some cases.
In addition to pain and inflammation, arthritis in the feet commonly causes symptoms such as:
- tenderness when applying pressure to the joint
- pain from movement
- discoloration, swelling, and warmth around the joint
- flares of pain due to vigorous activity
- difficulty walking or with other movements
- increased pain and swelling in the morning or after rest
A person may also:
- feel unsteady on their feet
- feel or hear a grating or cracking sensation or noise
- have achy feet at night or during the day when not moving
If arthritis also affects the ankle, a person may feel weakness in the tendons and muscles. This can cause pain when walking or putting pressure on the ankles and feet.
Treatment can depend on the type of arthritis a person has. In some cases, palliative care, such as pain relief medication, braces, and healthy lifestyle choices, may be all a person needs. A person with RA may need additional therapy to treat the underlying inflammation and help prevent the disease from worsening.
Lifestyle changes may help alleviate pain and stiffness and improve mobility. Some lifestyle changes that may help include:
- limiting high impact activities, such as jogging
- engaging in low impact physical activity, such as swimming
- achieving and maintaining a moderate weight
- avoiding activities that aggravate the joints
- managing blood pressure and cholesterol
- stopping smoking
- following a healthy, balanced diet
Exercise and stretching may help people relieve some pain and stiffness in the joints. They can include:
- stretches that focus on the feet and lower legs
- strength exercises, which may help improve joint stability and support
- cardiovascular exercise, which helps improve overall health
A person should aim for strength exercises on at least 2 days a week and at least 2.5 hours of moderate cardio exercise each week. During exercise, it is also important for individuals to wear shoes that provide good support and have a spacious toe box.
Taking care of the feet may help to reduce pain, stiffness, and swelling. Some foot care tips include:
- keeping feet clean and dry
- wearing comfortable, supportive shoes
- wearing braces for support
- using moisturizers to keep feet soft
- applying heat or cold packs as needed
- trying massage
A doctor may recommend different therapies and medications to help manage the symptoms of foot arthritis or its underlying cause.
Some common medical treatments for arthritis in the feet include:
- physical or occupational therapy
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- assistive devices
- cortisone injections
- surgery to repair, fuse, or replace joints
A person should work with a doctor to determine the best treatment option.
The following section answers common questions about foot arthritis.
Where does foot arthritis hurt?
Foot arthritis can cause pain in the foot and ankle. It can also cause pain in other areas, such as the legs and lower back. This pain may relate to the adjustments a person makes in their movement and posture to avoid experiencing pain.
Is walking good for foot arthritis?
Movement, stretching, and other forms of exercise can help improve joint stability, muscle tone, and overall health. Walking is a low impact activity that can boost mood and well-being.
However, if foot arthritis makes walking difficult, people can try swimming, which does not require the feet to bear weight.
What causes arthritis flare-ups in the feet?
Most daily activities can aggravate the joints in the feet. Putting pressure or weight on the feet can trigger flares but so can resting for long periods, such as overnight. Some people experience flares in cold weather or after eating particular foods. A person may find their symptoms improve with low impact exercise and once they start moving for the day.
Arthritis in the feet can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and reduced mobility. The pain can make movement difficult and interfere with everyday life.
However, exercise and movement can help relieve pain and other symptoms. A person may find that exercise, combined with weight loss if necessary, pain management, and lifestyle changes, alleviates pain and stiffness.
A person can discuss their symptoms with a doctor. They can help identify the cause, provide treatment options, and recommend healthy lifestyle choices as required.