Ankle arthritis is a degenerative disease, but with the right treatment the degenerative process can usually be slowed down and pain can be controlled.
Sometimes a small change, such as wearing more supportive footwear, can make a big difference in the long run. The sooner treatment begins, the better the odds of conserving joint integrity and function for years—or even a lifetime—thereby staving off debilitating pain and the possible need for surgery.
Arthritis treatment can range from simple lifestyle modifications to surgery. The treatments are reviewed here as follows:
- Lifestyle Changes
- Medical Interventions
Some simple changes in lifestyle, such as changing footwear and exercise habits, can make a big difference in the progression of ankle arthritis.
Certain types of activities and exercise will aggravate the ankle joint. These activities should be avoided and alternatives may be identified. For example, jogging may be replaced with cycling or swimming, which exerts less force on the ankle joint.
While painful ankle osteoarthritis may discourage someone from being physically active, less physical activity is not advisable. In fact, inactivity is harmful, and often leads to other health problems. A health care provider can work with an individual patient to find alternatives or adaptive strategies to perform daily activities that trigger pain.
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People with ankle arthritis should wear shoes that provide good support and discourage ankle “rolling” that causes a foot to turn in or out. High heels and flip-flops should be avoided. High top shoes and boots may help stabilize the ankle.
A little discomfort is to be expected as stiff joints loosen up in the morning or at the beginning of exercise. However, when people feel bone-on-bone pain or searing pain, they should not try to “work through the pain.” Moderate to serious ankle pain is a signal that the joint needs a rest. If there is no pain relief within a few days of rest, then medical attention should be sought.
Warm or cold compress
Using a warming pad or whirlpool for a few minutes can loosen a stiff ankle joint, making activity easier. Icing the ankle joint for 15 or 20 minutes after activity can decrease swelling and provide some immediate pain relief. Heating or icing a joint may improve symptoms temporarily: it does not alleviate the underlying causes of ankle pain and will not improve long-term joint function by itself.
A diet to maintain healthy weight can pay big dividends for those suffering from ankle osteoarthritis. Every extra pound on the body can translate into 5 extra pounds of pressure exerted on the ankle.20 For people who are overweight or obese, losing weight will significantly reduce pressure and strain on the ankle joint, thereby alleviating painful symptoms and slowing the progression of ankle osteoarthritis.
Some patients employ techniques such as relaxation (e.g., relaxation tapes, meditation), visual imagery, biofeedback, or hypnosis. When combined with a positive attitude that focuses on what activities are possible, these techniques can have a significant impact in moderating the ankle pain.
When lifestyle changes are not enough to treat ankle osteoarthritis symptoms, people should contact their doctor and consider medical treatments.
- Stauffer RN, Chao EY, Brewster RC. Force and motion analysis of the normal, diseased, and prosthetic ankle joint. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1977;(127):189-96. PubMed PMID: 912978.