Signs & symptoms of arthritis in feet

Updated July 13, 2018

Noting that arthritis literally means "pain within a joint," the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) further defines arthritis as the leading cause of disability in the United States. Three types of arthritis typically occur in the feet and symptoms vary depending on the part of the foot affected. Advances in treatment continue toward the overall goal of decreasing pain and improving or maintaining mobility.


AAOS states that osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis, is due to the natural ageing process. Tissue (cartilage) covers the surface of bones where they come together in a movable joint. Healthy cartilage enables the bones to slide smoothly across one another during motion. Over time, the cartilage and other structures in joints simply wear down, leading to osteoarthritis. The most commonly affected joints in the feet are at the ankle, hind-foot, mid-foot and big toe.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis are more common in middle age and tend to progress. Typical symptoms, according to WebMD, include pain with repetitive use, stiffness, swelling and creaking in the joint. Usually worse later in the day, the aching and stiffness can occur after inactivity as well, such as with sleeping through the night. At its most severe stage, osteoarthritis causes complete loss of the cartilage cushion and bone rubs against bone, resulting in pain at rest and even with very limited movement. Osteoarthritis might also cause enlargement of bone and tissue at the affected joint, most familiar in the foot as a bunion at the base of the big toe.

Treatment includes rest, restricting the activity causing pain, anti-inflammatory and pain medications, steroid injections into the joint, weight loss if necessary to decrease stress on the joint and surgery for the most debilitating cases.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Capable of affecting the same joints in the feet as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a waxing and waning inflammatory process, which results from an underlying immunologic disorder that causes the body's immune system to destroy cartilage.

According to WebMD, fever, fatigue, decreased appetite and muscle aches accompanied by pain, warmth and redness at joint sites are typical symptoms. They also note that debilitating morning stiffness, sometimes taking hours to resolve, can signal RA. Prolonged or recurrent episodes can cause irreversible joint damage but, compared to the slow onset and progression of osteoarthritis, RA symptoms tend to come on suddenly and then recede.

Treatment goals include reducing pain and inflammation but also focus on suppressing the immune response with drugs like methotrexate, or preventing inflammation from developing with medications like Enbrel.

Post-Traumatic Arthritis

This type of arthritis results after damage to the joint during an injury to the foot, like an ankle sprain or fracture. The AAOS states that the symptoms can occur years after the original injury and mimic those of osteoarthritis--progressive joint pain, stiffness and swelling at the old injury site. Treatment for post-traumatic arthritis is generally the same as that for osteoarthritis.

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About the Author

A medical writer since 1990 and successful home-based business owner for more than 14 years, Sandra King holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications. She uses her formal education, professional insight and extensive volunteer involvement to cover topics on health and fitness, pets, parenting for a lifetime, building healthy relationships, conquering business basics and developing career goals.