Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States, affecting over 53 million Americans. The term is a combination of two Greek words – “arthro” meaning joint, and “-itis” meaning inflammation. Inflammation of the joints is what all types of arthritis have in common. Your joints may become tender and warm to the touch. They may become stiff and painful, making movement difficult. This can be debilitating in everyday life and limit your ability to perform mundane tasks like climbing stairs. But arthritis isn’t just painful or frustrating – it can cause permanent damage to your joints and even other parts of the body in some cases. Both hereditary and environmental factors can cause arthritis.
When arthritis affects the feet, every step can be excruciating. Your feet are bearing the load of your entire body. If arthritis makes walking painful, you may find yourself making posture adjustments that have adverse effects throughout the body. That’s why it is crucial to address arthritis as soon as it is diagnosed.
Arthritis myths and facts
- Myth: Only old people get arthritis. Fact: While older people are more susceptible to certain types of arthritis, there is no strict link between arthritis and age. Over 300,000 children in the United States have arthritis, while some seniors never develop symptoms.
- Myth: Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis. Fact: Recent research has debunked this old wives’ tale.
- Myth: If using my joints wears them down, I should rest them as much as possible. Fact: Sitting around all day will only make most types of arthritis worse. Stay active to strengthen the muscles in your joints and keep them flexible.
- Myth: There’s nothing you can do about arthritis: Fact: a wide range of treatments are available to treat and limit the symptoms of arthritis. We’ll talk more about these methods further below.
Types of arthritis
It is important to remember that arthritis is not a single disease, but a description of many different conditions. Each has its own different causes and symptoms and may coexist with another. So let’s dive into some of the most common forms of arthritis that can affect the feet.
Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis. It can be thought of as simple wear and tear that happens to the joints over time. Years of walking, running, jumping, and bearing weight gradually wear down the cartilage in the joints. Cartilage is the soft, flexible tissue in the joints that serves as a cushion for impact. When the cartilage is damaged, the joints lose much of their cushion, and simple movement starts to become painful. Symptoms usually start around age 50. Osteoarthritis is most common in the hands, knees, hips, and lower back, but it can affect any joint in the body. In the feet, osteoarthritis is usually found in the heelbone, the joint between the foot and the big toe, and the joint connecting the ankle and shinbone.
Post-traumatic arthritis is sometimes thought of as a subtype of osteoarthritis – both result from damage to the cartilage between the joints. But post-traumatic arthritis is different in that it comes on from a physical injury. Depending on the severity, the joint may never fully heal, and cartilage may never fully grow back. In some cases, symptoms do not emerge for years.
Gout results from a condition called hyperuricemia, which is the buildup of uric acid. Your body extracts uric acid from purines, which are found in a variety of foods including red meat, alcohol, sweetened beverages, and most foods heavy in fat. Purines are healthy in appropriate amounts, but excess amounts can cause major problems through the excess of uric acid that builds up in the bloodstream. High amounts of uric acid can result in the formation of urate crystals in your joints, causing gout attacks. These can come on suddenly and be severe – symptoms include swelling, tenderness, and a painful burning sensation. Even the slightest touch may be excruciating. Gout is most common in the big toe because it is the farthest party of the body from the heart.
Rheumatoid arthritis is the most dangerous form of arthritis. For reasons not entirely clear, the immune system becomes confused and starts to use the body’s defense mechanisms to attack its own joints. This causes the tissue inside the joints to swell and become inflamed, leaving you without your natural cushioning. When rheumatoid arthritis becomes severe, tasks as simple as walking can become extremely painful. Rheumatoid arthritis is especially serious because it can also attack other parts of the body, including the lungs, eyes, kidneys, and skin.
Treating and preventing arthritis
Treatment for arthritis may depend on the type of arthritis you are dealing with, but there are also some general principles you can follow to alleviate symptoms and limit the risk of developing them in the first place. Note that none of these methods are capable of curing arthritis.
- Maintain a healthy weight to relieve stress on the joints. The best way to lose weight is to control your diet. When building a diet plan, you should also factor in your purine consumption to prevent gout.
- Set a regular exercise schedule. In addition to helping with weight loss, exercise strengthens the muscles in your joints and reduces the chances of them becoming suddenly overloaded. But don’t overdo it, especially if you’re recovering from an injury; overexerting yourself may reaggravate old injuries and cause new ones. Your muscles are building themselves up in real-time, so work your way up to higher weights and faster speeds gradually. A good, simple way to start is to walk for 30 minutes a day. When walking, be careful to stay on flat terrain as much as possible, and stay on the trail during hikes. The more you walk, the more you may find yourself wanting to exercise. Next steps from there may include running, swimming, or riding a bicycle.
- Quit smoking. There is an established link between smoking and rheumatoid arthritis; the chemicals in cigarettes are believed to be a trigger for faulty signals that cause the immune system to attack the joints. Smoking also increases the risk of cancer, stroke, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Physical therapy programs provided by your doctor are effective in targeting arthritic joints and strengthening them.
- Your doctor may prescribe custom-made orthotics to be placed in your shoes. These can help to correct any misalignments and take pressure off joints that are causing pain.
- Cold temperatures are known to cause swelling in the joints, aggravating existing symptoms of conditions like osteoarthritis. This is one major reason why winters can be especially hard on the elderly. To minimize the impact of cold temperatures, wear warm clothing in layers to insulate yourself.
- Hot and cold therapies
- Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines such as Advil, Aleve, or Lodine.
- If over-the-counter medications don’t work, you can have steroids such as cortisone injected into the joint. These substances act like artificial joint fluid and provide temporary cushioning.
- When arthritis becomes especially severe in the foot, many people choose to walk with a cane to take some of the weight off.
- In extreme cases, surgical intervention such as joint replacement may be necessary.
The most important thing is to take symptoms seriously, even if they are mild for now. As with any disease, catching arthritis early goes a long way in addressing the root causes and limiting the progression of symptoms. Our specialists at Metro Tulsa Foot & Ankle are here to help you find out what’s causing your arthritis and begin treatment before things get worse. Click here to schedule an appointment with us today.