What Is Foot Arthritis? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It
Learn about foot arthritis and possible causes. Get tips to manage pain from foot arthritis and simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.
Your feet are your unsung heroes. They each have 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. All of these structures work together to allow you to not only stand but also do so many basic activities, like walk the dog, go on long runs, and jump up and down.
But sometimes, your feet just ache. You may find that they hurt after you’ve spent a lot of time standing or maybe you notice that you’re not able to run or walk as much as you used to without some discomfort. You might find yourself sitting more to take pressure off your feet.
One possible reason you may be experiencing changes in foot function is foot arthritis. While arthritis isn’t the only problem that can cause foot aches and pains, of course, it is a common culprit. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to feel better.
Read on to learn more about what causes foot arthritis and how to treat it — especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Mijo Cotic, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Is Foot Arthritis?
“When we use the term foot arthritis, it doesn’t mean your entire foot has arthritis — it’s usually just present in specific joints within the foot,” explains Mijo Cotic, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. The most common spot, he notes, is usually the first metatarsophalangeal joint, which is in your big toe. “It’s the link between your big toe and the bones in the main part of your foot,” says Dr. Cotic.
Foot arthritis often occurs as a natural part of aging: Some studies suggest that anywhere from 20 to 30% of people will show signs of it on an X-ray. But they may not have symptoms like pain or stiffness, points out Dr. Cotic. And even if you do have arthritis symptoms in your feet, you’re not stuck with them. Treatment can help a lot.
Foot Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective
If you’ve been told that you have foot arthritis, you might think you need to stay off your feet or focus on low-impact activities such as swimming or rowing. But, at Hinge Health, we believe that movement is medicine. It’s one of the best things you can do if you have symptoms like stiffness and pain. “Movement increases blood flow to the area and strengthens foot muscles, which can help improve symptoms,” says Dr. Cotic.
It’s also important to realize that everyone’s body responds differently to exercise. Some people with foot arthritis feel best if they stick mostly to lower impact activities such as walking or cycling, while others are able to continue or build up to higher impact workouts that involve jumping and running.
“In general, if you work on stretching and strengthening foot muscles, you’ll find that any type of movement, including high-impact activities, becomes much easier,” stresses Dr. Cotic. “Your body responds really well to challenges, and your feet are no exception.
Symptoms of Foot Arthritis
While foot pain is common, there may be some tip offs that your pain is due to arthritis instead of another issue, says Dr. Cotic. In general, foot arthritis pain develops gradually over time, rather than suddenly. Other symptoms of arthritis in feet include:
Foot pain that gets worse with motion.
Foot pain that flares up with vigorous activity — for example, a long run or hike.
Tenderness when you press or push on the joint.
Swelling, warmth, and redness around a specific foot joint.
Pain that’s worse when you first get up in the morning, or after sitting or resting, and gets better once you start to move around.
Types of Arthritis Affecting the Foot
The most common type of foot arthritis is osteoarthritis, says Dr. Cotic. It’s more common as you age, but it can happen when you are younger, too. It occurs when there are changes to the shock-absorbing cartilage in one more of the joints in the foot. Symptoms, often including pain and stiffness, tend to develop slowly and progress gradually over time. Other types of arthritis in feet include:
Inflammatory arthritis. Inflammatory arthritis is the result of an overactive immune response, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, resulting in chronic inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are two types of inflammatory arthritis that often affect the feet and ankles.
Posttraumatic arthritis. You may develop this after you’ve had a serious foot injury, like a fracture. According to the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, an injured joint is more likely than an uninjured one to develop arthritis over time.
Gout. Gout is a form of arthritis that results from a buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint, causing inflammation and pain. It usually affects small joints — in fact, most first episodes occur in the big toe joint, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research.
Treatment Options for Foot Arthritis
There’s a lot you can do to help reduce pain and stiffness that results from foot arthritis. The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for foot arthritis:
Foot exercises. These are the cornerstones of physical therapy. Strengthening exercises, like the ones suggested below, are very important since strong muscles take pressure off joints, easing pain. “You also want to work on range-of-motion and flexibility exercises, since these get movement into your foot joints and help reduce discomfort,” says Dr. Cotic.
Over-the-counter medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for treating occasional pain flare-ups from foot arthritis. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.
Note: If you have rheumatoid arthritis or another form of inflammatory arthritis, your doctor should refer you to a rheumatologist. Certain medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), have been shown to be very effective in preventing your immune system from attacking your joints, which can reduce symptoms and disease progression. Gout, too, is usually treated with prescription medications that target inflammation and/or uric acid production.
Heat. Moist heat, like a hot water bottle or warm wet towels, can help relieve arthritis pain and stiffness because the heat increases blood flow to the affected area, says Dr. Cotic.
Activity modifications. If you’re a runner or love to be on your feet for high-impact sports like basketball, you may be worried you’ll have to limit these activities to ease your foot arthritis. And while that may be the case at first, it won’t be forever, says Dr. Cotic. As you work to strengthen and stretch foot muscles and ligaments, you may need to switch to lower-impact activities like swimming or cycling or reduce how long you run or play sports to lessen the stress on your feet, at least temporarily.
Shoe support. “If you have foot arthritis, one of the first things you should try is an over-the-counter orthotic, or shoe insert, to minimize pressure on your feet and reduce pain,” recommends Dr. Cotic. If that’s not enough to alleviate some foot pain, talk to your doctor about getting custom-made orthotics, or even an ankle-foot-orthosis (AFO), which is like a custom-built brace.
Exercises for Foot Arthritis
If you have foot pain due to arthritis, it’s important to strengthen and stretch your foot muscles. “Exercise helps to lubricate joint cartilage, which will naturally make the area less painful,” says Dr. Cotic. “You want to increase strength and maintain your foot joints’ range of motion in order to minimize stress on these joints.” The above exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to help manage the symptoms and pain of foot 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.
PT Tip: Think Beyond Your Feet
“When it comes to foot arthritis, it’s best to take a whole-body approach,” advises Dr. Cotic. “You don’t just want to treat symptoms — you want to treat all the contributing factors, which often involves looking at your entire lower body, including your knees and ankles.” That’s one reason why it’s good to work with a physical therapist if you have foot arthritis, he notes. They can do a complete evaluation and take a more holistic view, rather than simply focus on one area.
You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
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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Manganaro, D., Dollinger, B., Nezwek, T. A., & Sadiq, N. M. (2022). Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Foot Joints. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30725626
Menz, H. B., Munteanu, S. E., Landorf, K. B., Zammit, G. V., & Cicuttini, F. M. (2009). Radiographic evaluation of foot osteoarthritis: sensitivity of radiographic variables and relationship to symptoms. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 17(3), 298–303. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2008.07.011
Weatherford, B. M. (2019, December). Arthritis of the Foot and Ankle. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-foot-and-ankle/