Ankle arthritis refers to the degeneration of cartilage tissue in the ankle joint, leading to chronic pain, swelling, and stiffness. Cartilage damage in the ankles is usually caused by serious injuries and years of general wear-and-tear, though immune system disorders and severe infections can also result in arthritis symptoms. Treatment of ankle arthritis depends largely on the underlying cause. Most people are able to find relief by avoiding intense physical activity and taking anti-inflammatory medications. Surgery to repair tissue or replace the ankle joint may be needed if other treatments are ineffective.
Osteoarthritis is a common cause of ankle pain that results from a combination of genetics and wear-and-tear on the ankles over time. An ankle injury that results from an awkward fall or twist can significantly accelerate the onset of osteoarthritis. Some people who experience chronic ankle pain suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, which is a disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks otherwise healthy joint tissue. Infections and injuries that damage ankle bones and blood vessels can also cause cartilage deterioration.
An individual who has ankle arthritis is likely to experience pain, tenderness, and redness. Inflammation causes the joint to swell and become stiff, limiting the joint's range of motion. Symptoms are usually the most noticeable after engaging in physical activity, in the mornings, and in cold weather.
A primary care physician should be consulted to check for ankle arthritis if pain and swelling are persistent. A doctor can conduct a careful physical examination, ask the patient about symptoms and medical history, and take an x-ray of the affected joint. X-rays reveal the location and extent of cartilage damage and any other problems with bones, ligaments, or tendons. Doctors must take care to make accurate diagnoses of the causes of ankle arthritis in order to provide the best treatment.
People with mild arthritis symptoms are usually instructed to limit their activity level and invest in more comfortable shoes. Orthotic shoe inserts and ankle braces may be helpful in providing stability and comfort. Patients are often instructed to take over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling. An individual who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis may need to take immunosuppressant drugs and join physical therapy classes to learn how to better manage symptoms.
Surgery is generally reserved for cases of ankle arthritis that do not respond to medications or physical therapy. Arthroscopic surgery, which is a minimally invasive procedure, can be attempted if only small bits of cartilage need to be repaired or removed. For a more severe instance of arthritis, a patient may need to undergo ankle fusion, in which screws and bolts are used to permanently fuse the joint together. An ankle joint that cannot be repaired may be replaced with a prosthetic ankle. Following surgery for ankle arthritis, a patient may need to undergo several months or years of physical therapy to regain strength and some degree of flexibility.