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Treating Arthritis in the Ankle

If you have arthritis in your ankle, the pain can vary from mild to so severe it’s difficult to walk. Though it can’t be cured, doctors today have many treatments to help relieve your pain and get you back to the activities you love.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is inflammation in a joint, and it’s common in the small joints of the ankle. The types of arthritis that affect your ankles are:

  • Osteoarthritis — Often called wear-and-tear arthritis since it’s common for many people in middle age, osteoarthritis gradually wears away the cartilage of your joints over time, and can eventually lead to bone rubbing on bone.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis — Post-traumatic arthritis can develop after an injury, such as a dislocation or a fracture, to your ankle. These injuries can damage the joint surface and cause the cartilage between your joints to wear away.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis — An autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis happens when your immune system attacks its own tissues. This can mean swelling, weakened ligaments and softening of your bones.

Non-surgical treatment options

The following non-surgical treatments can help with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and post-traumatic arthritis:

  • Bracing — A lace-up ankle brace restricts the motion of your ankle and supports your ankle joint. This can relieve pain when you walk and can also prevent further deformity of your ankle. In some cases, these braces are custom-made to fit your foot.
  • Ice — Icing your ankle for 20 minutes can be effective for relieving pain. You can do this up to three or four times a day — just don’t apply ice directly to your skin.
  • Oral medications — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen can reduce pain and inflammation. And in some cases, oral steroids can also help relieve symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis can often be treated with medications called disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs designed to stop your immune system from affecting your joints. You will see a rheumatologist for these medications.
  • Orthotics — An orthotic insert for your shoe can be very effective at providing support and improving the mechanics of how your ankle moves. If you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis in your ankle, you should use a custom orthotic made of softer material.
  • Rest — Good, old-fashioned rest can minimize your pain by stopping or limiting the activities that make the pain worse.
  • Steroid injections — These injections deliver anti-inflammatory medication directly into the ankle joint. While they can reduce swelling, stiffness and pain, the number of injections you can get in one year is usually limited because of potential side effects.

Surgical treatments options

If non-surgical treatments don’t work for you, or if your ankle pain gets worse over time, your doctor may recommend surgery. Depending on your condition, you may benefit from one of these procedures:

  • Ankle fusion (ankle arthrodesis) — In the ankle, the tibia (shinbone) rests on a bone in the foot called the talus. When arthritis affects these two bones, the smooth cartilage wears away. During an ankle fusion, your surgeon would fuse these two bones together as one. If you have an ankle fusion, your ankle movement will be limited. However, after you recover from your surgery, your pain will be greatly reduced.
  • Ankle replacement — If your ankle is badly damaged, an ankle replacement, where your damaged bone and cartilage is replaced with an artificial joint, may be recommended. Your ankle replacement will decrease or eliminate your pain and allow you to move your ankle.

Get the help you need, sooner rather than later

Even if your pain today seems like something you can live with, it’s always best to see your doctor soon — before your condition can potentially worsen and when there are more treatment options available for you. Your family doctor can get you started with treatment and recommend specialists when necessary.

Learn more about the orthopedic care available at Tanner Ortho and Spine Center at TannerOrtho.org.

Tanner Medical Group

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