Ankle Arthritis: What Can I Do?

Ankle arthritis, is a growing problem as we get older, especially if you've had a significant ankle injury in the past. 9 to 15% of the population experiences ankle pain at some point in their life, and if you have had ankle problems in the past, you might be more susceptible to arthritis in the future.

If you think you might be experiencing ankle arthritis, seeking treatment should be a top priority. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to learn more about ankle arthritis and the symptoms that go along with it.

Common Symptoms of Ankle Arthritis

Some of the most common symptoms of ankle arthritis include the following:

Ankle Pain

Most people with ankle arthritis experience pain in the ankle or lower shin. The pain varies in intensity depending on the severity of the condition. It could come and go, and you may experience flare-ups during certain activities.

Ankle Stiffness

Bone friction and swelling make your ankle stiff and not as flexible. The range of motion in your ankle could also become limited, which makes it hard to flex or extend your toes.

Inactivity Causes More Discomfort

After prolonged periods of inactivity, ankles can become stiffer. If you suffer from ankle arthritis, you may find your pain and stiffness is more noticeable when you first get up in the morning, or after a long period of sitting.

Ankle Swelling

As the cartilage in your ankle wears away, the talus, tibia, and fibula bones rub together. This causes irritation, which leads to ankle swelling.

Ankle Crunching or Popping

If you sense a crunch or hear a squeaking or popping sound when flexing or pointing your toes, it’s a sign your cartilage has worn away and that it’s no longer protecting the bones from friction. This symptom is referred to as crepitus.

Treatment Options for Ankle Arthritis

Treatment options for ankle arthritis depend on how severe your symptoms are. Initially, treatment begins with activity modification, along with steps to strengthen the muscles around your ankle. Doctors may also prescribe inflammatory medicines and balance exercises. 

Non-Invasive Treatment

If you are carrying extra pounds, losing weight can help. You may also use a cane in the opposite hand of your hurt ankle to alleviate some pressure. Another option is to invest in shoes with a convex or rocker sole, which reduces force on your ankle.

Another option is custom ankle braces. These eliminate motion and reduce pressure. They are often used in conjunction with weight loss, shoes, and the use of a cane.

Surgical Treatment Options

If none of the non-invasive treatments are effective, surgery might be the most viable solution. There are two basic types of surgery for ankle arthritis.

Ankle Fusion – Arthrodesis

This is a proven treatment for ankle arthritis. It involves the removal of any cartilage remaining and aligning the ankle at 90 degrees. Next, the surgeon puts in screws to keep the joint from moving, allowing the body to grow a bone bridge across the joint.

This hardware is typically left in permanently unless it creates discomfort. Hardware can be taken out any time beyond one year from surgery once the bones have healed.

There is a drawback of this surgical option, as it sacrifices motion to provide pain relief. You can walk normally after this surgery, but it limits the range of motion of the joint.

This surgical option may be the better option for younger patients, those with certain lifestyle demands, marked obesity, nerve damage, previous infection, or poor bone quality.

Total Ankle Replacement (TAR)

The other surgical treatment for ankle arthritis is total ankle replacement. This involves the resurfacing of the weight-bearing parts of your ankle where the bones meet.

With this surgery, doctors place a metal component on the upper bone of the ankle and a matching component to the lower bone. Between the components, a polyethylene liner is placed to help the ankle glide through the proper range of motion.

The biggest benefit of this surgical option is that you can move your ankle afterward. Range of motion that is acheived after surgery is often determined by the amount of motion that you have pre-operatively. 

An additional benefit of TAR is that if you have arthritis in other joints, the treatment can help alleviate stress on those joints. With fusion, it can increase the stress and can cause a condition known as adjacent joint arthritis.

An ideal candidate for TAR is someone with good bone quality, normal neurologic function and no history of infection. Your doctor can provide you more information about this surgical treatment and if it is a viable option for your ankle arthritis.

What Treatment is Right for Your Ankle Arthritis?

It’s always best to start with non-invasive treatments for ankle arthritis. Most times, this is enough to alleviate the pain and discomfort the condition causes.

However, if you have a more severe case of ankle arthritis, surgery could be the best option for total pain relief. It’s a good idea to discuss the options mentioned above with your doctor to figure out what you should do. While both surgeries are successful, what you choose depends on your situation.

If you want more information about ankle arthritis treatment, contact our team. We can help ensure you receive the treatment you need for your condition, regardless of how mild or severe it is.