Foot and Ankle Conditions

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What are foot and ankle conditions?

Foot and ankle conditions affect any of the structures in your feet or ankles. There are 26 bones and 33 joints in your foot and 3 main bones in your ankle. There are also numerous ligaments, tendons, nerves and muscles throughout your foot and ankle complex. Ligaments connect bones to other bones and provide stability to a joint. Tendons attach muscles to bones and allow movement. A problem with any of these components of the foot and ankle can result in pain and other symptoms.

Foot and ankle conditions include:

It’s important to see a doctor for persistent symptoms of a foot or ankle condition, such as pain, swelling or numbness. When you seek care early on, you can often prevent the condition from getting worse and possibly correct the initial problem. Some conditions need more immediate treatment, such as fractures, inability to move your foot, and infection. You may need to see a podiatrist—a doctor who specializes in foot care and foot, ankle and toe surgery.

What types of symptoms occur with foot and ankle conditions?

Pain is a common symptom of many foot and ankle conditions. The type of pain varies depending on the condition. It can be acute, chronic, dull, achy or sharp. It can also be constant, come and go, or worsen with specific activities. Some other common symptoms of foot and ankle conditions include:

  • Deformity

  • Instability or feeling like your foot or ankle is giving way

  • Muscle soreness, tenderness or achiness

  • Numbness, tingling, burning, and other abnormal sensations (paresthesia)

  • Stiffness or difficulty moving the foot, ankle or toes

  • Swelling, warmth or redness over a joint

Serious symptoms that require immediate medical care

Bone fractures can lead to complications and require immediate medical attention. Seek immediate medical care (or call 911 for help) if you have any signs and symptoms of a bone fracture including:

  • A deep wound or trauma with open skin

  • Bone sticking out through the skin

  • Changes in the ability or way you walk

  • Hearing a snapping or grinding sound during an injury

  • Inability to move the ankle, foot or toes or stand on your feet

  • Instability of the foot or ankle

  • Severe pain, swelling or bruising

What causes foot and ankle conditions?

Physical and accidental trauma is a common cause for many foot and ankle conditions. Some foot and ankle injuries happen suddenly, such as a fracture, sprain or bruise. However, injuries can also be chronic and occur gradually. Stress fractures and plantar fasciitis are examples. Wearing shoes that don’t fit right can also cause gradual trauma and encourage conditions, such as bunions. Foot and ankle conditions and injuries can cause foot, ankle and toe deformities, but some deformities are present at birth.

What are the risk factors for foot and ankle conditions?

The risk factors for developing a foot or ankle condition also depend on the specific condition. Playing sports is a common risk factor for both acute and chronic injuries involving the foot and ankle. Medical conditions can also contribute to the development of foot and ankle conditions. Examples include diabetes, which can cause neuropathy and other complications, and osteoporosis, which thins the bones and makes them more likely to break. Some people are also more prone to problems with their feet or ankles due to genetics. You have a greater risk of developing foot and ankle problems if you have a family history of them.

Reducing your risk of foot and ankle conditions

You may be able to lower your risk of foot and ankle conditions by:

  • Balancing strength training with stretching exercises

  • Closely following your treatment plan for medical conditions that carry a risk of foot or ankle problems

  • Cross-training with a variety of activities, which will help avoid repetitive strain on your foot or ankle

  • Knowing your risk factors for osteoporosis and treating it if necessary

  • Strengthening the muscles in your lower legs and feet

  • Strengthening your bones with weight-bearing activities and plenty of calcium and vitamin D

  • Wearing the correct footwear for your sport or activity and making sure you have the right fit

Do not delay seeing your doctor if you notice foot or ankle symptoms. In general, the earlier you seek treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be.

How are foot and ankle conditions treated?

The foot and ankle treatment you need will depend on your specific condition. The general treatment goals include correcting any physical problems and improving symptoms. Doctors often recommend physical therapy to help accomplish these goals. Medications, corticosteroid shots, or foot and ankle surgery may be necessary for some problems.

Some common foot conditions, including bunions and heel spurs, will respond to changes in your footwear. Along with the proper fit, you may need shoes that accommodate your problem. You may also need to use inserts, pads or orthotics to improve alignment and comfort.

If your condition is due to a minor injury, it may respond to the RICE protocol and anti-inflammatory drugs. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. For more severe injuries, you may need to use crutches and wear a splint, walking boot, or cast.

What are the potential complications of foot and ankle conditions?

Most people recover from foot and ankle injuries without any chronic problems. However, injuries that do not heal completely or heal improperly can cause complications. This can include persistent pain, weakness or instability. Working with a physical therapist can help prevent complications and prevent future injuries and problems. Foot and ankle problems in people with certain coexisting conditions, such as diabetes, may need ongoing care and management.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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