How Different Forms Of Arthritis Can Affect Your Feet?

08/08/2016 11:33 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2017

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one-fourth of American adults have some form of foot pain, and the tendency to suffer from foot ailments increases as we age.

If you have arthritis, your chances of having foot problems are increased still further. Many forms of arthritis can cause pain, stiffness and swelling in the heel, the joints and the ball of the foot. According to the Arthritis Foundation, 50 percent of Americans over the age of 65 suffer from arthritis foot pain.

In this article, we will look at how arthritis affects the foot and then at some strategies for handling the foot pain that comes with different forms of arthritis.

Forms of Arthritis and What it Does To Your Feet

In osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints is worn down. As a result, the bones can rub against each other, causing pain, stiffness and loss of the joint.

Osteoarthritis often affects the big toe joint, causing loss of range of motion in addition to pain and stiffness. The mid foot and the arch also can be affected by osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints, can affect the small joints of the feet. People with rheumatoid arthritis often develop corns and bunions, and their toes can curl and stiffen resulting in hammertoe or claw toe.

Juvenile arthritis, a term used when arthritis begins before age 16, can cause pain and swelling in the joints of the feet.

Gout, a form of arthritis that occurs when excess uric acid is deposited as monosodium in the joints and other tissues, can cause pain and swelling in the big toe. After years with the disease, gout sufferers may find that lumps of uric acid form beneath their skin in different parts of the body, including their feet.

Reactive arthritis, a form of arthritis that often occurs after an infection of the genital, gastrointestinal system or urinary system, can cause a rash or hard nodules to develop on the palms of the hands or on the soles of the feet. Reactive arthritis also can affect the ankle, the heel and the toes, causing pain and swelling.

Psoriatic arthritis can affect the toes. The skin disease associated with this condition can affect the skin on the feet and cause the toenails to thicken and even separate from the nail bed.

Infectious arthritis (or septic arthritis), which is caused by an infection within the joint, can cause pain in the joints of the feet.

Signs of Foot Problems Associated with Arthritis

Now that we have discovered the different types of arthritis, it is important to know the different common symptoms you may be experiencing.

  • Stiffness. As arthritis wears away the cartilage between your joints, your tissue can become inflamed and your joints can become difficult to move.

  • Swelling. All types of arthritis can cause joint inflammation and noticeable swelling. For example, your big toe may look red and feel warm and tender as inflammation brings more blood to your toes swelling can make it difficult to put your shoes on, especially in the morning.
  • Clicking and Popping Sounds. Noises similar to the sound of knuckles cracking may occur in your feet when you walk. These sounds are caused by the bones in a joint, which were once protected by cartilage, rubbing together. Bone spurs, outgrowths of bone that can occur along the edges of a bone, also can cause clicking and cracking sounds.
  • Locked Joint. When the joint is no longer able to bend due to swelling and stiffness, it can have a tendency to tighten or "lock up." It may take some walking or manipulation of the joint to loosen it up again.
  • Walking Difficulty. When the above symptoms occur, your gait is affected, as you try to compensate for the pain. You may walk differently, adjusting your normal movement to keep your weight off your painful toes, for instance. These changes in your walking pattern can throw your entire body off kilter, causing hip or back pain or even weight gain.
  • Plantar fasciitis. Arthritis patients are prone to develop plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of thick stretch of tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot, from the toes to the heel bone. Plantar fasciitis can make routine walking painful and difficult. Sufferers often say it feels as if the arch of the foot is tearing.
  • Relief for Arthritis-Related Foot Problems

    The first step is to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis of your foot problems. If you have arthritis, it is important to have your feet checked at least once a year by a podiatrist or a rheumatologist.

    Talk with your doctor about some simple stretching exercises you can do to help increase the flexibility of your toes and your feet. In addition, you or your partner can provide relief by massaging the balls of your feet as well as your individual toes. Start at the top of your toes, gently kneading as you go, and work down to the heel.

    Comfortable, supportive shoes are the next step to treating painful feet associated with arthritis. Here are some tips:

    • Pay attention to shoe width as well as length to allow your toes the space they need.

  • Avoid wearing high heels as they can add pressure to the sensitive balls of your feet.
  • Ask your doctor about orthotics or shoe inserts for better support and/or better weight distribution.
  • Some over-the-counter topical medications can provide relief from the foot and toe pain caused by arthritis.

    Talk with your doctor about capsaicin, a natural ingredient found in chili peppers that can be effective in relieving pain, and about anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, which can help reduce swelling and pain from arthritis.

    Surgery should be a last resort for foot and toe pain associated with arthritis. The right procedure would depend on the type of arthritis you have, the level of pain and resulting lack of mobility you are experiencing, and your over-all health.