If arthritis doesn't respond to nonsurgical treatment, surgical treatment might be considered. The choice of surgery will depend on the type of arthritis, the impact of the disease on the joints, and the location of the arthritis. Sometimes more than one type of surgery will be needed.
Surgery performed for arthritis of the foot and ankle include arthroscopic debridement, arthrodesis (or fusion of the joints), and arthroplasty (replacement of the affected joint).
Arthroscopic surgery may be helpful in the early stages of arthritis.
A flexible, fiberoptic pencil-sized instrument (arthroscope) is inserted into the joint through a series of small incisions through the skin.
The arthroscope is fitted with a small camera and lighting system, as well as various instruments. The camera projects images of the joint on a television monitor. This enables the surgeon to look directly inside the joint and identify the problem areas.
Small instruments at the end of the arthroscope, such as probes, forceps, knives, and shavers, are used to clean the joint area of foreign tissue, inflamed tissue that lines the joint, and bony outgrowths (spurs).
Arthrodesis or Fusion
Arthrodesis fuses the bones of the joint completely, making one continuous bone.
The surgeon uses pins, plates and screws, or rods to hold the bones in the proper position while the joint(s) fuse. If the joints do not fuse (nonunion), this hardware may break.
A bone graft is sometimes needed if there is bone loss. The surgeon may use a graft (a piece of bone, taken from one of the lower leg bones or the wing of the pelvis) to replace the missing bone.
This surgery is typically quite successful. A very small percentage of patients have problems with wound healing. These problems can be addressed by bracing or additional surgery.
The biggest long-term problem with fusion is the development of arthritis at the joints adjacent to those fused. This occurs from increased stresses applied to the adjacent joints.
Arthroplasty or Joint Replacement
In arthroplasty, the damaged ankle joint is replaced with an artificial implant (prosthesis).
Although not as common as a total hip or knee joint replacement, advances in implant design have made ankle replacement a feasible option for many people.
In addition to providing pain relief from arthritis, ankle replacements offer patients better mobility and movement compared to fusion. By allowing motion at the formerly arthritic joint, less stress is transferred to the adjacent joints. Less stress results in reduced occurance of adjacent joint arthritis.
Ankle replacement is most often recommended for patients with:
- Advanced arthritis of the ankle
- Destroyed ankle joint surfaces
- An ankle condition that interferes with daily activities
As in any joint replacement surgery, the ankle implant may loosen over the years or fail. If the implant failure is severe, revision surgery may be necessary.
Foot and ankle surgery can be painful. Pain relievers in the hospital and for a time period after being released from the hospital may help.
It is important to keep your foot elevated above the level of your heart for one to two weeks following surgery.
Your Foot and Ankle Surgeon may recommend physical therapy for several months to help you regain strength in your foot or ankle and to restore range of motion. Ordinary daily activities usually can be resumed in three to four months. You may need special shoes or braces.
In most cases, surgery relieves pain and makes it easier to perform daily activities. Full recovery takes four to nine months, depending on the severity of your condition before surgery, and the complexity of your procedure.