Arthritis is a general term for a group of more than 100 diseases. Arthritis means “joint inflammation.” When it affects joints of the foot, it can produce swelling and pain and may eventually result in deformity, loss of joint function and decreased ability to walk.
The most common form of foot arthritis and ankle arthritis is osteoarthritis.
Similar symptoms may be caused by another form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis that affects the joint of the big toe is known as “hallux rigidus.”
What Is Hallux Rigidus?
Hallux rigidus is a disorder of the joint located at the base of the big toe. It causes pain and stiffness in the joint, and with time, it gets increasingly harder to bend the toe. Hallux refers to the big toe, while rigidus indicates that the toe is rigid and cannot move. Hallux rigidus is actually a form of degenerative arthritis.
This disorder can be very troubling and even disabling since we use the big toe whenever we walk, stoop down, climb up or even stand. Many patients confuse hallux rigidus with a bunion, which affects the same joint, but they are very different conditions requiring different treatment.
Because hallux rigidus is a progressive condition, the toe’s motion decreases as time goes on. In its earlier stage, when motion of the big toe is only somewhat limited, the condition is called hallux limitus. But as the problem advances, the toe’s range of motion gradually decreases until it potentially reaches the end stage of rigidus, in which the big toe becomes stiff or what is sometimes called a frozen joint.
Common causes of hallux rigidus are faulty function (biomechanics) and structural abnormalities of the foot that can lead to osteoarthritis in the big toe joint. This type of arthritis—the kind that results from wear and tear—often develops in people who have defects that change the way their foot and big toe functions. For example, those with fallen arches or excessive pronation (rolling in) of the ankles are susceptible to developing hallux rigidus. In some people, hallux rigidus runs in the family and is a result of inheriting a foot type that is prone to developing this condition. In other cases, it is associated with overuse, especially among people engaged in activities or jobs that increase the stress on the big toe, such as workers who often must stoop or squat. Hallux rigidus can also result from an injury, such as stubbing your toe. Or it may be caused by inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout. Your foot and ankle surgeon can determine the cause of your hallux rigidus and recommend the best treatment.
Early signs and symptoms include:
• Pain and stiffness in the big toe during use (walking, standing, bending, etc.)
• Pain and stiffness aggravated by cold, damp weather
• Difficulty with certain activities (running, squatting)
• Swelling and inflammation around the joint
As the disorder gets more serious, additional symptoms may develop, including:
• Pain, even during rest
• Difficulty wearing shoes because bone spurs (overgrowths) develop
• Dull pain in the hip, knee or lower back due to changes in the way you walk
Limping (in severe cases)