What Is Ankle Arthritis? Signs You Might Have It and How to Manage Your Pain

Arthritis in your ankle can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. Here’s how to keep it from affecting your daily movement.

Published Date: Sep 28, 2023
elderly-couple-park

What Is Ankle Arthritis? Signs You Might Have It and How to Manage Your Pain

Arthritis in your ankle can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. Here’s how to keep it from affecting your daily movement.

Published Date: Sep 28, 2023
elderly-couple-park

What Is Ankle Arthritis? Signs You Might Have It and How to Manage Your Pain

Arthritis in your ankle can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. Here’s how to keep it from affecting your daily movement.

Published Date: Sep 28, 2023
elderly-couple-park

What Is Ankle Arthritis? Signs You Might Have It and How to Manage Your Pain

Arthritis in your ankle can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. Here’s how to keep it from affecting your daily movement.

Published Date: Sep 28, 2023
elderly-couple-park
Table of Contents

You may not give a ton of thought to all that your ankles do for you each day, but they play a vital role in many everyday activities, as well as your general musculoskeletal (muscle and joint) health. Your ankles have the ability to bear an impressive load — about five times the force of your body weight when you walk. They allow you to dance, play pickleball, and do other things that you love.

So if your ankle often feels stiff, swollen, tender, or painful, it could interfere with your daily routine. There are many possible contributors to ankle pain, one of which is ankle arthritis. With the right help, however, you can reduce the discomfort and get back to doing what you love. 

Here, learn more about ankle arthritis — and find out how to feel better with tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.

You may not give a ton of thought to all that your ankles do for you each day, but they play a vital role in many everyday activities, as well as your general musculoskeletal (muscle and joint) health. Your ankles have the ability to bear an impressive load — about five times the force of your body weight when you walk. They allow you to dance, play pickleball, and do other things that you love.

So if your ankle often feels stiff, swollen, tender, or painful, it could interfere with your daily routine. There are many possible contributors to ankle pain, one of which is ankle arthritis. With the right help, however, you can reduce the discomfort and get back to doing what you love. 

Here, learn more about ankle arthritis — and find out how to feel better with tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

What Is Ankle Arthritis?

Arthritis is characterized by inflammation and swelling. The most common kind, osteoarthritis, happens when there are changes to the shock-absorbing cartilage in a joint. 

If you have ankle arthritis, thinning of cartilage can reduce the amount of space between your bones.

What’s interesting, says Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health, is that not everyone with arthritis that’s visible on an X-ray has noticeable symptoms like pain or stiffness. Or they may feel great one day and other times not so good. 

Equally important: knowing that if you do have arthritis symptoms in your ankle, it doesn’t mean that you’re stuck with them, because treatment can help a lot.

Ankle Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

At Hinge Health, we believe that movement is medicine, and that’s certainly true for people with ankle arthritis.

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
There is a misconception that moving more will make the problem worse, but that’s not true. We actually see higher rates of arthritis in people who don’t move around a lot.

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Another common misconception is that people with ankle arthritis — or arthritis anywhere in the lower body — ought to avoid high-impact exercise. While that makes sense for beginners and some people with ankle arthritis who are having a flare-up that causes pain, many people with this condition are able to participate in higher-impact sports without any issue, says Dr. Peterson.

He also advises patients to avoid focusing too much on the degree of arthritis that’s visible on an X-ray, assuming your doctor has ordered one. An X-ray doesn’t always correlate to how you feel or what you’ll be able to do as you work on strengthening the joint and surrounding tissues.

Types of Ankle Arthritis 

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and many of them have the potential to impact the ankle. They include:

  • Osteoarthritis: The overwhelming majority of people with arthritis, including ankle arthritis, have this kind. It involves a thinning of the cartilage that cushions the joint. While many people don’t experience symptoms associated with cartilage changes, it can cause pain and stiffness that may worsen after activity. 

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): RA is an autoimmune disease and the most common cause of what’s also called inflammatory arthritis. It typically impacts small joints in the hands and/or feet, which may include those in the ankle.

  • Psoriatic arthritis (PsA): A type of inflammatory arthritis that affects some people who also have skin psoriasis, PsA often causes pain and swelling in the fingers and toes. “As it progresses, it can also move into the feet and ankles,” says Dr. Peterson.

  • Gout: Another kind of inflammatory arthritis, gout is best-known for causing pain in the big toe. However, gout is caused by urate crystals that settle in joints and cause inflammation, and those crystals may deposit themselves anywhere — including in the ankle.

  • Post-traumatic arthritis: This refers to joint inflammation that quickly develops after an injury. If you have sprained or fractured your foot, you might later end up with post-traumatic arthritis.

Treatment Options for Ankle Arthritis

Most people who are impacted by ankle arthritis can feel better and do more with a few key things, says Dr. Peterson:

Opt for physical therapy. Physical therapy is an evidence-based treatment for ankle arthritis and is typically very effective, says Dr. Peterson. To begin, a therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation, which may include watching how you walk and pressing on the joint. If it’s clear that you’re dealing with ankle arthritis and not another problem, the therapist will develop a specific program designed to improve ankle joint mobility, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and improve your overall functioning.

Dr. Peterson notes that while most people with ankle arthritis will benefit from physical therapy, he takes a slightly different approach with those who have an inflammatory type of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or gout. “If someone has an autoimmune or inflammatory condition, we’re more apt to advise pacing your activities and using a little more caution when increasing movement,” he explains.

You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit. Exercise. This may include doing specific moves you learned in physical therapy as well as a sport or activity that you enjoy. “Daily movement is important for symptom relief and pain management,” says Dr. Peterson. 

The key, he notes, is to choose movement that your body is prepared for. If you can tolerate high-impact activities like tennis or basketball, that’s great. If not, you might want to pull back a little until the muscles around the ankle joint become stronger and your pain has gone down. Scroll down for some specific exercises to try.

Use assistive devices as needed. This isn’t necessary for everyone, but some people with ankle arthritis benefit from temporarily changing the way that their ankle bears weight or reducing the load on it. Assistive devices like hiking poles, a cane, or a walker might be useful in the short term, says Dr. Peterson. It may also help to try out different shoes: a light and stiff walking boot could provide some extra ankle support. Or experiment with wearing a soft brace on your ankle to help stabilize it during activities that may stress it.

Try heat or ice. It’s really a personal preference, but heat typically relieves muscle tension, while ice brings down inflammation and swelling, says Dr. Peterson. If your ankle is swollen, it may also help to wrap it in a compression bandage and elevate it.

Use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers as needed. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen should help combat inflammation and pain. Taking them for a short time might make it easier for you to exercise and follow a physical therapy regimen that will help you in the long run, says Dr. Peterson. But check with your doctor first, especially if you’re taking other medications. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for arthritis pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

Exercises to Treat Ankle Arthritis

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Calf Raises
  • Mini Side Lunge
  • Tib Raises
  • Calf Stretch

Most people with ankle arthritis respond very well to exercise and can use it to increase their mobility and decrease their pain over time. Hinge Health physical therapists often recommend the above exercises for people with ankle arthritis.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

When to See a Doctor

Ankle arthritis can usually be managed at home with movement and other conservative measures. If joint symptoms are causing you concern — for instance, if they start to interfere with your ability to go about your daily activities and at-home treatments aren’t working for you — it might help to see your doctor. They may be able to tailor your treatment plan to your needs or, in some cases, discuss whether you’re a good candidate for surgery.

PT Tip: Don’t Let Fear Get in the Way of Movement

Unless you have a break in the bone — which would be visible on an X-ray — exercise is almost always helpful, says Dr. Peterson. It’s natural to want to take it easy when you’re in pain, but moving can ultimately be a good thing. Depending on your starting point, you may need to start slowly and work your way up to longer sessions. A physical therapist can help you do this safely.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Arthritis in Foot and Ankle: Symptoms, Surgery & Treatment. (2019, January 31). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/13900-foot-and-ankle-arthritis#:~:text=Symptoms%20of%20foot%20and%20ankle%20arthritis%20often%20involve%20the%20following,Stiffness%20in%20the%20joint

  2. Rath, L. (2022, June 9). What Is Arthritis? Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/what-is-arthritis

  3. Ankle Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation.  https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/where-it-hurts/ankle-anatomy

  4. Psoriatic arthritis—Symptoms and Causes. (2021, October 2). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/psoriatic-arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354076

  5. Gout—Symptoms and Causes. (2022, November 16). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gout/symptoms-causes/syc-20372897

  6. Post-Traumatic Arthritis. (2021, December 1). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14616-post-traumatic-arthritis