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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease in which certain cells of the immune system malfunction and attack healthy joints.
RA causes inflammation in the lining (synovium) of joints, most often the joints of the hands and feet. The signs of inflammation can include pain, swelling, redness, and a feeling of warmth around affected joints. In some patients, chronic inflammation results in damage to the cartilage and bones in the joint. Serious damage can lead to permanent joint destruction, deformity, and disability.
When joints become inflamed due to RA, the synovium thickens and produces an excess of joint fluid. This overabundance of fluid, along with inflammatory chemicals released by the immune system, causes swelling and damage to the joint’s cartilage and bones.
Osteoarthritis is considered a “wear and tear” disease because the cartilage in the joint wears down with repeated stress and use over time. As the cartilage deteriorates and gets thinner, the bones lose their protective covering and eventually may rub together, causing pain and inflammation of the joint.
An injury may also lead to osteoarthritis, although it may take months or years after the injury for the condition to develop. For example, osteoarthritis in the big toe is often caused by kicking or jamming the toe, or by dropping something on the toe. Osteoarthritis in the midfoot is often caused by dropping something on it, or by a sprain or fracture. In the ankle, osteoarthritis is usually caused by a fracture and occasionally by a severe sprain.
Sometimes osteoarthritis develops as a result of abnormal foot mechanics such as flat feet or high arches. A flat foot causes less stability in the ligaments (bands of tissue that connect bones), resulting in excessive strain on the joints, which can cause arthritis. A high arch is rigid and lacks mobility, causing a jamming of joints that creates an increased risk of arthritis.
Foot problems caused by RA commonly occur in the forefoot (the ball of the foot, near the toes), although RA can also affect other areas of the foot and ankle. The most common signs and symptoms of RA-related foot problems, in addition to the abnormal appearance of deformities, are pain, swelling, joint stiffness, and difficulty walking.
Deformities and conditions associated with RA may include:
RA is diagnosed on the basis of a clinical examination as well as blood tests.
To further evaluate the patient’s foot and ankle problems, the surgeon may order x-rays and/or other imaging tests.
While treatment of RA focuses on the medication prescribed by a patient’s primary doctor or rheumatologist, the foot and ankle surgeon will develop a treatment plan aimed at relieving the pain of RA-related foot problems. The plan may include one or more of the following options:
When RA produces pain and deformity in the foot that is not relieved through other treatments, surgery may be required. The foot and ankle surgeon will select the procedure best suited to the patient’s condition and lifestyle.