Causes and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The exact cause of RA is not known. There may be a genetic reason—some people may be more likely to develop the disease because of family heredity. However, doctors suspect that it takes a chemical or environmental "trigger" to activate the disease in people who genetically inherit RA. The most common symptoms are pain, swelling, and stiffness. Unlike osteoarthritis, which typically affects one specific joint, symptoms of RA usually appear in both feet, affecting the same joints on each foot.

Your feet and ankles can be affected by RA in the following ways:

  • Ankles. Difficulty with inclines (ramps) and stairs are the early signs of ankle involvement. As the disease progresses, simple walking and standing can become painful.
  • Hindfoot. The main function of the hindfoot—or heel region of the foot—is to perform the side-to-side motion of the foot. Difficulty walking on uneven ground, grass, or gravel are the initial signs. Pain is common just beneath the fibula (the smaller lower leg bone) on the outside of the foot. As the disease progresses, the alignment of the foot may shift as the bones move out of their normal positions. This can result in a flatfoot deformity. Pain and discomfort may be felt along the posterior tibial tendon (main tendon that supports the arch) on the inside of the ankle, or on the outside of the ankle beneath the fibula.
  • Midfoot. With RA, the ligaments that support the midfoot become weakened and the arch collapses. With loss of the arch, the foot commonly collapses and the front of the foot points outward. RA also damages the cartilage, causing arthritic pain that is present with or without shoes. Over time, the shape of the foot can change because the structures that support it degenerate. This can create a large bony prominence (bump) on the arch. All of these changes in the shape of the foot can make it very difficult to wear shoes.

Treatment From a Podiatrist for Foot & Ankle RA

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition. To ease pain and discomfort in your feet, your podiatrist will start by recommending rest, ice, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, orthotics, braces, and steroid injections. Your doctor may recommend minimally invasive surgery depending on the extent of cartilage damage and your response to nonsurgical options.

Eric Harmelin, DPM
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Experienced Amputation Prevention Specialist and Podiatrist in Annapolis, Stevensville, and Glen Burnie, MD.