Joint pain in your foot is often due to inflammation of the joints (arthritis). This can be from an underlying condition, injury, or infection in your foot or elsewhere. But noninflammatory conditions can also be a cause.
Many people spend a large part of their day on their feet. This can put a lot of pressure on the 33 joints in your foot, from the large ankle joint to the tiny distal phalangeal joint at the tip of your toe. So it’s probably not surprising that up to
Sometimes joint pain (arthralgia) in your foot is due to a short-term cause, like an injury or infection. But long-term joint pain is usually due to a condition that causes inflammation in your joints, otherwise known as arthritis.
Arthritis may feel and look different from other types of joint pain. In this article, we’ll look at possible causes of joint pain in your foot and review how to tell the difference between arthritis and other causes of pain. We’ll also discuss how to manage joint pain in your foot and when to see a doctor.
Arthritis vs. arthralgia
Arthralgia is the medical term for joint pain.
Arthritis is the term for inflammation in your joints, causing pain. Medical terms that end in “-itis” usually refer to a type of inflammation.
Although people often use the terms interchangeably, they’re not the same. Arthritis is a common source of arthralgia. But you can have arthralgia without inflammation.
Joint pain in the foot can result from any of the following:
- trauma (injury)
- structural problems
Let’s look at some of the more common conditions that contribute to joint pain, with or without inflammation.
Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that occurs over time. Some people refer to it as “wear and tear” arthritis because the cartilage inside the joint is damaged by stress and use. The cartilage becomes thinner, and bones rub together.
You can get osteoarthritis in any joint in your foot. But the most common locations are the big toe, ankle, and midfoot.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition. Your immune system targets healthy parts of your body, including your joints, causing pain and inflammation. Genetics and smoking can increase your risk of RA.
More than 90% of people with RA experience joint pain in their feet. It most commonly affects the small front foot joints at the base of the toes and the joint above the heel. RA can also cause bursitis on the ball of the foot.
Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) can cause toes to take on a sausage-like appearance (dactylitis) due to swelling in the small joints. They may feel tender and warm. You’re most likely to get dactylitis in the small toes of the foot.
PsA usually occurs in people who already have psoriasis. Experts aren’t sure why some people develop PsA, but infection, trauma to the joints, or stress may trigger the onset of symptoms.
Gout is a type of arthritis that comes on suddenly and lasts for 3 to 10 days. It’s from a buildup of uric acid, which can turn into crystals in and near the joint. It’s most common in the big toe.
Gout can be extremely painful. The joint may be quite swollen and feel hot and very tender. The skin around the joint may seem shiny.
Risk factors for gout include diabetes, kidney problems, or a diet that causes uric acid buildup. Examples of foods that may lead to gout are red meat and organ meat.
A bunion appears as a bump at the base of your big toe. The bump is actually caused by a misalignment that pushes your big toe toward your other toes. A bunion can cause swelling, stiffness, and pain in the big toe joint, making it hard to move. The toe may also be tender to the touch.
Some people are more likely to get bunions because of the natural shape of their feet. A bunion develops over time and can get worse if you wear tight-fitting shoes.
Bursitis is inflammation of the bursae around the joints. Bursae are sacs of fluid that help cushion the areas around joints, tendons, and bones. Inflammation may result from repetitive movement or irritation, such as from exercise or shoes.
With bursitis, you may experience swelling and changes in skin color, such as redness.
Capsulitis is when the ligaments of the joints at the base of the second, third, or fourth toe become inflamed. Symptoms of capsulitis include pain in the ball of the foot and feeling like there’s a stone or marble under your toe. You may have swelling or pain while walking barefoot.
You’re at higher risk of capsulitis if you have a bunion or high foot arches.
Rest, stretching tight calf muscles, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help relieve symptoms of capsulitis.
Tendinitis is inflammation of the tendons, the tissues that connect your bones to muscles. While tendinitis doesn’t affect your joints directly, it can cause pain and tenderness around your joints. Common sites on the feet include the ankle and heel.
Tendinitis is most likely to develop due to tight-fitting footwear or overuse of the foot.
An infection in your joints can cause pain and swelling. Infectious (or septic) arthritis sometimes starts with an infection elsewhere in your body that later spreads to your joints. For example, a gonorrhea infection can result in ankle pain.
Similarly, reactive arthritis occurs when an infection triggers an immune system response that affects your joints. This is
Joint pain doesn’t necessarily mean arthritis. Arthritis means that your joints are inflamed.
The pain of foot arthritis may develop over time or come on suddenly. Symptoms of foot arthritis include:
- pain when moving the joint
- pain after activity
- warm joints
- redness or changes in color
- increase in pain after resting
- pain or swelling in the morning
When to contact a doctor
It’s particularly important to see a doctor if you have arthritis symptoms that last 3 days or more or have frequent joint symptoms over the course of 30 days.
If you don’t know the cause of your joint pain, you may want to see a doctor. Some kinds of arthritis can cause permanent joint damage without treatment.
To manage joint pain, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends the following:
- Reduce activity to avoid aggravating your joints.
- Switch to low impact exercise like swimming or cycling.
- Maintain a moderate weight.
- Wear a foot brace or wrap.
- Take NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen.
You may also consider the following help from medical professionals:
- Attend physical therapy.
- Receive corticosteroid injections for temporary pain relief.
- Talk with a doctor about surgery if nonsurgical treatment doesn’t work.
Exercise can help you retain and restore strength and mobility in your feet. Foot exercises may help to heal your joint and reduce symptoms.
If you feel too much pain during exercise, consider reducing the length of your exercise session and increasing rest periods.
If you have arthritis, consider switching from high impact exercises, such as running and racket sports, to low impact exercises, like swimming or cycling. You may feel less pain, and it may help to slow down the condition’s progression.
Is walking good for arthritis in your feet?
Walking is usually a low impact exercise that lets you control the amount of stress on your feet. It can also help you maintain a moderate weight, reducing pressure on your joints.
A foot brace, insoles, or orthotics can increase your comfort while walking.
Joint pain in your foot is often due to some form of arthritis, but not always. Arthritis means your joints are inflamed. Besides causing pain, it also often causes your joints to be swollen, stiff, and discolored.
Regardless of the source of your foot joint pain, you may need to consider some lifestyle changes or medications to help relieve symptoms. Consider changing your exercise routine, resting, or taking NSAIDs to reduce pain.
It’s a good idea to speak with a doctor to get a diagnosis and medical treatment if necessary.