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Arthritis Today

Arthritis & Diseases that Affect the Foot

From joint inflammation and narrowed blood vessels to compressed nerves, problems that may be to blame for painful feet.

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Many forms of arthritis and related conditions that affect the joints, muscles and/or bones can cause problems like pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints of the feet. Other conditions can cause additional problems, such as numbness and tingling, pitted nails, painful ulcers or thickened skin. Here are some possible disease-related problems that affect the hands and wrists.

  • Osteoarthritis (OA). The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints. This breakdown causes the bones to rub against each other, causing stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint. In the foot, osteoarthritis most commonly affects the big toe, but it can also affect the midfoot.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints that occurs when the body’s immune system – which normally protects us from infection – mistakenly attacks the synovium, the thin membrane that lines the joints. The result can be joint damage, pain, swelling, inflammation, loss of function and disability. Rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects the small joints of the feet, often causing symptoms in several joints of both feet. This can lead to the development of corns and bunions, and the curling and stiffening of the toes into positions such as claw toe or hammer toe.
  • Juvenile arthritis (JA). Juvenile arthritis is the term used to describe arthritis when it begins before age 16. There are several different types of juvenile arthritis that can cause pain and swelling in the joints of the feet.
  • Gout. Gout is a form of arthritis that occurs when excess uric acid, a bodily waste product circulating in the bloodstream, is deposited as needle-shaped monosodium urate crystals in tissues of the body, including the joints. For many people, the first symptom of gout is excruciating pain and swelling in the big toe – often following a trauma, such as an illness or injury. Subsequent attacks may occur off and on in other joints. After years with the disease, lumps of uric acid, called tophi, may form beneath the skin in different parts of the body, including the feet. 
  • Reactive arthritis. Reactive arthritis is a chronic form of arthritis that often occurs following an infection of the genital, urinary or gastrointestinal system. Features of reactive arthritis include inflammation and swelling of the joints, eyes and structures within the gastrointestinal or genitourinary tracts, such as intestines, kidneys or bladder. A small percentage of people with the disease develop a rash or hard nodules on the soles of their feet or on the palms of their hands.
  • Lupus. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease, meaning the body's immune system creates antibodies that attack healthy tissues, including the joints. The wrist and small joints of the feet are among those most commonly affected by lupus. Lupus also can cause inflammation in many organs, including the skin, heart, lungs and kidneys.
  • Psoriatic arthritis. Psoriatic arthritis is a form of arthritis accompanied by the skin disease psoriasis. The skin disease often precedes the arthritis; in a small percentage the joint disease develops before the skin disease. Psoriatic arthritis can affect the toes. The associated skin disease can affect the skin of the feet and cause the toenails to thicken, develop pits and separate from the nail bed.
  • Infectious arthritis. Also called septic arthritis, infectious arthritis refers to arthritis that is caused by an infection within the joint. Infectious arthritis is often caused by bacteria, which spread through the bloodstream to the joint. Sometimes it is caused by viruses or fungi and can affect the joints of the feet.
  • Raynaud's phenomenon. Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition characterized by a narrowing of the blood vessels to the extremities, usually in the hands and feet, in response to cold temperatures or stress. When blood vessels close down, toes become cold and white, then blue, and numb or painful. When the vessels open up again, the toes become red or purple. Raynaud’s is often associated with connective tissue diseases, notably scleroderma.
  • Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones lose enough mass that they become brittle and prone to breaking with slight trauma. In people with osteoporosis in bones of the foot, just stepping off of a curb can cause a stress fracture. The condition can occur with aging, inflammatory disease (such as rheumatoid arthritis) inactivity, a low-calcium diet or use of corticosteroid medications.
  • Scleroderma. Literally translated &quothard skin,&quot scleroderma is an umbrella term for disorders that involve the abnormal growth of the connective tissue supporting the skin and internal organs. Although there are several different forms of scleroderma, all forms can cause thickening and tightening of the skin on the fingers called sclerodactyly. Skin thickening can also affect the backs of the feet, but it is usually less disabling than skin tightening on the hands.
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