Do you know how many joints you have in your feet? The number might surprise you.
The answer, at least for most people, is 66 joints—or 33 per foot. Forty of those joints (20 in each foot) are articulated, meaning that they are designed to be flexible and allow motion.
It’s not just your toes that need to curl, in other words. Joints of different sorts allow your arch to flex when bearing weight, or for you to move your foot up and down (plantarflexion and dorsiflexion), side to side (inversion and eversion), and all around.
So it’s not surprising that foot and ankle arthritis can cause major pain and frustration to anyone hoping to spend more than a few moments at a time on their feet.
But there’s hope.
If arthritic feet are depriving you of your ability to enjoy an active lifestyle, there are things you can do to help you reduce your pain—and not all of them will put you on a surgical table.
Here are some of the most important things to try.
Exercise Your Feet and Ankles
We know—the very idea of exercise may seem like torture to someone who already has significant arthritic foot pain. But there are several reasons why it is important.
Perhaps the biggest one is that it’s important to have a strong, durable support structure surrounding joints that have become worn down or stiff. Specific stretches and exercises can:
- Improve flexibility and extend your range of pain-free motion.
- Strengthen supporting muscles and soft tissues, so they can absorb a greater proportion of the impact forces (and therefore reduce the amount of physical stress on arthritic joints.)
- Increase bone strength, reducing the risk of further joint deterioration.
- Reduce pain.
It is important that your exercises are not aggravating your arthritis symptoms. If exercise only causes more pain, stop!
We are happy to instruct you on which stretches and exercises are going to be most beneficial (and less stressful) based the specific type of arthritis you have and the joints that are affected.
Speaking of …
Keep Your Cardio Low-Impact
Let’s put it this way:
If you have arthritis in your feet, chance are that distance running or basketball might not be the best exercise choices if you want to avoid pain.
However, going for a medium-paced walk is much lower-impact, and may result in far less pain and discomfort. You can add riding your bicycle, going for a swim, or doing some yoga or tai chi as good athletic alternatives.
It’s worth pointing out that these kinds of general cardiovascular exercise are also extremely important if you have arthritis in your feet, even though they don’t seem to be targeting the feet specifically.
For one, a fitter body is better able to deliver vital oxygen and nutrients to those supporting tissues that protect the joints. For another, keeping your body weight within a healthy range can significantly reduce the amount of stress you put on the joints of your feet whenever you stand or take a step.
Use Assistive Devices
The most essential and basic “assistive device” is, simply, your shoes.
If you have arthritis in your feet or ankles, it’s especially important that you support your feet with the right pair of footwear—specifically, ones that:
- Fit your feet just right—not too tight, not too loose, and comfy from the first moment you put them on.
- Provide optimal support and cushioning for your arches and heels, which will help keep impact forces away from painful joints.
- Are the appropriate style for the sport or activity you’ll be engaged in.
Certain shoe styles, such as those with especially stiff soles or even rocker bottoms, may be more appropriate for those with arthritic foot pain.
That said, for some people, simply wearing a good pair of shoes off the rack may not be enough. This is especially true if your arthritis is severe, or you have existing structural foot problems such as bunions or flat feet.
In such cases, you may also need the right pair of orthotics—chosen or even custom-made to address your specific issues in a more personalized way than the default insoles that simply came with your shoes. Ankle braces may also be appropriate for certain arthritic conditions.
Once again, this is something our office is very well equipped to help you with. Rather than picking inserts or braces off the pharmacy shelves (which may not even be right for your feet), we will conduct a careful evaluation of your foot and ankle mechanics and provide exactly the devices you need.
Conventional Pain Relief Options
For those moments when pain spikes, you do have a variety of both medical and non-medical pain relief strategies to help you.
A medium-to-long-term option that is usually quite effective and safe (for most people) is a cortisone shot. One injection into the joint can provide relief from inflammation and swelling for anywhere from a couple of months to, in rare cases, more than a year. It can work for both osteoarthritis (i.e., the “wear and tear” kind) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), too.
It’s important to understand, though, that even though cortisone can be a long-term pain management tool, it’s only treating the symptoms and it’s only temporary. If you continue to engage in activities that aggravate or damage the joint, the pain will only come back worse later. So it’s important that you also continue to do your approved exercises, wear appropriate shoes and orthotics, etc.
If an injection is not necessary or you have a contraindication for it, there are other options, including:
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.
- Heat or cold therapy. Both can provide relief (albeit in different ways) from most forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis and RA. Feel free to experiment with what feels best.
- Foot massage. This boosts circulation, eases muscle tension, and can reduce pain symptoms.
Surgery is the last resort. Usually we will only recommend this if your foot or ankle arthritis is both causing significant disability in your life (i.e., preventing you from completing important tasks or living your life the way you want to) and nonsurgical remedies have not been able to rectify it.
Surgery might include cleaning or smoothing joint surfaces, removing fragments of bone, or a joint fusion. Your age, health status, the severity of your arthritis, and your lifestyle goals post-surgery will be important factors for us to consider as we develop our recommended surgical approach.
Arthritis Pain Isn’t Inevitable
Although there’s no “cure” for arthritis, we hope we’ve shown you that, in most cases, there’s actually a lot you can still do to limit your pain, protect your joints, and continue to enjoy an active lifestyle.
And the sooner you take action—and make an appointment with our office for a personalized treatment plan—the better your long-term outlook is going to be.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Yuko Miyazaki at her office in Berkeley, please call us today at (510) 647-3744.