How many times have you stepped off the curb or out of your car the wrong way, and twisted your ankle? Probably more than you’d like to admit! Ankle injuries are pretty common. It’s easy to make a misstep and give yourself a strain or sprain. But as an ankle surgeon, many of my patients are surprised when they learn that arthritis can also be the source of their ankle pain.
So What Causes Arthritis in Our Ankles?
The most common form of ankle arthritis is actually caused by a previous trauma or injury. Perhaps you were in a car accident, or had a sports injury and had surgery for it. Then this injury, in a way “re-awakens.” This is different than when you get arthritis in your hip or knee, as these cases are usually caused by overuse or general wear and tear over time. With trauma, we can see deformities of the ankle caused by the injury.
Symptoms of Ankle Arthritis
There are several grades of arthritis, and your symptoms and treatment largely depend on these.
This is a very mild form of arthritis. You may only feel pain when you exercise or perform certain work duties or chores. Your pain might be in a specific area of your ankle joint. Pain will come and go; you’ll have good days and bad days.
This is a more moderate form where a significant portion of your cartilage may be lost. You’ll have more pain, and more limited range of motion and function. You might feel the changes in weather because your ankle might swell and be painful.
This is what we often consider end-stage arthritis, where we see bone-on-bone in the joint. This means the two bones now grind together because there is no cartilage to provide a nice gliding surface and lubricating joint fluid. Think of an engine trying to run without motor oil. This friction causes inflammation, and the ankle further deteriorates and starts to deform. When you reach this stage, ligaments and tendons can become compromised as your ankles are now weakened and unstable. At this stage, your pain is persistent.
Treatments for Aching Ankles
For those with milder symptoms, there are several things we recommend. Anti-inflammatory medications, using a brace or wrap, and shoe modifications such as orthotics are great first steps. As podiatrists we may recommend specific types of rocker bottom shoes or modifying certain activities. We also prescribe physical therapy to strengthen muscles around the ankle. There are also some injections that may help.
Some patients benefit from minor arthroscopic procedures that enable us to go in and clean up scar tissue or remove bone or cartilage fragments that may be the cause of pain. These are the types of treatments we consider for those with both grades 1 and 2. Again, frequency and intensity of these treatments depend on the each person’s case. If you’re at grade 3, surgery may benefit you. Two types of surgery are ankle replacement and ankle fusion.
Who Needs Surgery and What Kind of Surgery?
This is the tried and true method of treating end-stage ankle arthritis. It’s been described in the medical literature since the 1850s believe it or not! This is where arthritic bone is removed, the joints are “welded” shut, and held in place at a 90 degree angle with plates and screws. This eliminates grinding and eases inflammation and pain. It does a great job of relieving pain, but the ankle does become quite stiff. This is good for those who perform high-impact activities or whose job entails heavy labor, because it’s sturdier than ankle replacement.
With ankle replacement, we take out the arthritic joint and replace it with two metal surfaces with a plastic liner in the middle. This allows patients to have some flexibility and range of motion. The goal is to ease or eliminate pain while preserving range of motion as much as possible. You will have a more normal walk compared to joint fusion, but not as complete as before surgery. This is a great option if you prefer low-impact activities, such as walking, playing golf, swimming, etc. It’s also a very good option if you are in your 50s or older.
What to Expect After Ankle Replacement Surgery
After your ankle replacement surgery, you probably won’t do any weight bearing activities for 2-6 weeks. This timeframe really depends on your surgeon and your situation. When your surgeon thinks it’s appropriate, you’ll ease into exercises for range of motion, strength and balance. After that, you can expect several months of physical therapy. You’ll likely stay in touch with your surgeon periodically for months or even years to ensure your joint is still in its proper place and your pain is still relieved.
In the final analysis, we want to make sure that you get the right treatment for your lifestyle and life stage so that you can live as pain-free as possible.
Dr. Eric So
Dr. Eric So, DPM, is a fellowship-trained foot and ankle surgeon with Capital Foot and Ankle, in Lincoln, Nebraska.