Foot arthritis causes pain, stiffness, and swelling that can reduce mobility and quality of life. Here’s how to manage symptoms.

When you stand up, walk, or run, you’re probably not thinking about the 33 joints in each foot. But your feet are highly complex structures. Each joint plays an important role in your mobility, support, and balance.

All of these joints are also vulnerable to arthritis. When arthritis occurs in the foot, it can significantly reduce your mobility and quality of life.

Arthritis of the foot or ankle is usually one of the following four types:


OA is the most common type of arthritis. It’s caused by the gradual wear and tear of the joints over time.

A 2015 study of community-dwelling older adults suggests that foot OA may affect about 1 in 6 adults over age 50.

Rheumatoid arthritis

RA is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the joints, leading to inflammation and pain.

Research suggests that more than 90% of people with RA have foot pain. And it seems to begin early, as 70% of people with RA have foot synovitis (joint inflammation) within 3 years of its onset.

Post-traumatic arthritis

This type of osteoarthritis can develop after an injury to the foot or ankle, such as a fracture or sprain. Research in 2016 suggests that ankle trauma (ankle sprain) is the most common athletic injury and up to 90% of ankle arthritis is due to trauma.


This is a type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints, which can cause pain, inflammation, and stiffness.

Research in 2019 finds that gout most commonly occurs in small joints — with 43–76% of first episodes occuring in the first metatarsophalangeal joint (toe knuckle). But it’s also common in the midfoot and ankle joint.

Symptoms of foot arthritis may include:

  • Pain: Foot arthritis pain may be dull, aching, or sharp and may worsen with movement or activity.
  • Stiffness: The joints in your foot or ankle may feel stiff and difficult to move, especially after periods of rest or in the morning.
  • Swelling: Arthritis can cause inflammation in the joints, which can lead to swelling and tenderness.
  • Reduced range of motion: Arthritis can make it difficult to move the foot or ankle through its full range of motion.
  • Difficulty walking: Arthritis in the foot or ankle can cause pain and stiffness, making it difficult to walk or put weight on the affected joint.
  • Deformities: In some cases, foot arthritis can cause deformities such as bunions or hammer toes.

Here are some of the steps a clinician may take to diagnose foot arthritis:

  • Medical history: A healthcare professional may ask about your symptoms, when they started, and any family history of arthritis or related conditions.
  • Physical examination: A healthcare professional will examine your foot and ankle, looking for signs of swelling, tenderness, warmth, or deformity.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans can help detect joint damage, swelling, or other abnormalities.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can help detect inflammation markers or antibodies associated with autoimmune disorders.

Depending on the severity of your foot arthritis, several treatments can help manage your foot pain and inflammation.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy and foot exercises can help strengthen your muscles, reduce pain and inflammation, and improve joint mobility and balance.

One effective exercise is the towel stretch. This involves placing a towel under the ball of your foot and gently pulling the towel toward you to help stretch your toes and arch.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain medications can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) may be used for autoimmune forms of arthritis, like RA.

Orthotic devices

Orthotic braces help provide support and stability to the affected joint. This reduces pressure and stress on the joint, thereby improving foot function.

Braces can also help correct abnormal foot mechanics that may contribute to the development or progression of arthritis.

Steroid injections

Corticosteroid injections can help reduce pain and inflammation in the affected joint. Hyaluronic acid injections can also be used to improve joint lubrication.


In severe cases of foot arthritis, surgery may be recommended.

Joint replacement surgery can replace the damaged joint with an artificial joint, while arthrodesis (fusion) surgery can permanently fuse the bones together to reduce pain and improve stability.

While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent arthritis in the feet, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • maintain a healthy weight for your body
  • wear comfortable and supportive shoes
  • stay active
  • avoid high impact activities
  • wear protective gear during sports or other activities
  • eat a nutritious diet
  • avoid smoking
  • manage other health conditions that may contribute to arthritis (such as diabetes or gout)

Early-stage foot arthritis

Early signs of foot arthritis may include:

  • pain or stiffness in the affected joint, especially after periods of inactivity
  • swelling or tenderness
  • reduced range of motion
  • joint stiffness
  • warm to the touch
  • changes in foot shape or appearance
  • mucus cysts at the end of the toes or underneath the toenails
  • bone spurs on the heels
  • difficulty walking

Foot arthritis can be a challenging condition that leads to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. By staying proactive and taking steps to manage the condition, you can improve your quality of life and continue to do the things you love.

If you think you have foot arthritis, reach out to a healthcare professional to get a personalized treatment plan that meets your individual needs.