Ankle arthritis: an overview

Ankle arthritis affects around 30,000 patients a year in the UK. Causing pain and stiffness in the joint, it can have a significant effect on your ability to remain active and mobile. 

If you are experiencing pain or stiffness in one or both of your ankles, expert help is available with no waiting lists. It is very easy to arrange a consultation with an experienced doctor at your nearest Circle hospital, at a time that is convenient for you. Please contact us to arrange this. 

This hub explains more about arthritis in the ankle, including:

    • Ankle anatomy
    • What is arthritis?
    • Osteoarthritis in the ankle
    • Causes of ankle arthritis
    • Diagnosing ankle arthritis
    • Non-surgical treatments for ankle arthritis
    • Surgical treatments for ankle arthritis
    • Recovering from ankle surgery
    • Risks and complications
    • Why Circle?

Find out more about foot and ankle surgery at Circle Health

Foot and ankle unit at Circle Bath Hospital Foot and ankle surgery at Circle Reading Hospital


Ankle anatomy

Joints are formed in the body where bones move around or over one another. Your ankle joint is formed where the lower shin bone (tibia) meets the ankle bone (talus). Doctors refer to the ankle as the tibiotalar joint.

The tibia and talus are coated at their ends with a smooth, white tissue known as articular cartilage. This cartilage helps the bones of the ankle joint to move over one another freely, with minimal friction.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that can affect any joint of the body. It can occur in people of all ages, including children. There are a number of different types of arthritis, including:

  • Osteoarthritis; Causes degenerative changes in the articular cartilage of a bone. This is the most common type of arthritis in the UK and is described in more detail in the next section.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis; Caused by the immune system attacking the joints, leading to swelling, damage and sometimes a permanent change in the shape of the joint itself.

There is currently no cure for arthritis, but your Circle doctor will be able to give you expert and up-to-date advice on the best treatments available to help reduce your symptoms, manage any pain and limit the effect it has on your ability to enjoy life.

Osteoarthritis in the ankle

Osteoarthritis causes the articular cartilage to wear down more quickly than normal. This causes the bones to rub when they move over one another, leading to pain, stiffness, and swelling.

New bony growths called osteophytes may become formed in the joint. These hard lumps of bone increase the stiffness of the joint.

Causes of ankle arthritis

A number of factors are known to increase the risk of developing ankle arthritis, including:

  • A previous injury to the ankle joint
  • Weight: Obesity carries with it a multitude of health issues and risks, including a raised risk of developing osteoarthritis. Greater weight means an increased load and pressure is placed on the weight-bearing ankle joints
  • Family history (genetics): You may be at an increased risk of developing arthritis if there is a history of it in your family.

Diagnosing ankle arthritis

Long-term and/or worsening ankle problems should not be ignored. You do not have to suffer silentlywith ankle pain, as good medical help is available. It is always sensible to seek expert medical advice when you start to lose the ability to carry out certain tasks, or when the pain in your ankle becomes worse. If your ankle pain is severely limiting your movements or is waking you up at night, a consultation with a specialist doctor is recommended.

When you first meet with your doctor at Circle, they will talk with you about your medical history and how you have been managing the ankle pain up to now.

They will carry out a series of tests on your ankle to assess its range of motion and the extent of any problems.

Depending on your medical history and their examination, your doctor may arrange for you to have one of a number of diagnostic tests to help confirm a diagnosis of arthritis. All these tests can easily be carried out at your Circle hospital, often on the same day as your consultation, and may include:

  • Blood test: Certain types of blood tests can help in showing possible indications of some forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • X-ray: Where arthritis is suspected in the ankle, your doctor will often arrange for you to have an X-ray of your ankle as this can show signs of arthritis in the joint, such as a loss of a normal joint space. This X-ray will usually be done with you standing, as this allows the doctor to see how your ankle joint looks while it is bearing weight.
  • CT scan: Standing for ‘computerised tomography’, a CT scanner uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to generate a detailed view of your ankle from multiple angles. A CT scan is good at showing more subtle signs of arthritis that may be missed on a standard X-ray. It can also be helpful when planning any ankle surgery.
  • MRI scan: Standing for ‘magnetic resonance imaging’, an MRI scanner uses strong magnets rather than ionising radiation. This type of scan is particularly good for showing damage to the tendons or muscles in and around the ankle joint.

Not all of these diagnostic tests will be needed for every person. Your consultant will talk with you about any tests needed and explain why there are being done. 

[Data from the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust]

Ankle arthritis: treatment options

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