Caring for Osteoarthritis with Podiatry

The specialist care of the foot is referred to as podiatry, and this practice is an important discipline in maintaining the health and quality of life of individuals suffering from diseases which place their feet at particular risk. The most prominent examples of these are diabetes and arthritis, two conditions which are fairly prevalent in the UK, and remain a major concern to health authorities. Both diseases can severely impeded on the foot’s ability to function as an integral part of our ability to move freely, and in this article we look at how a particular form of arthritis (osteoarthritis) is treated by podiatrists here in the UK.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common of the 100+ types of arthritis here in the UK. The disease severely affects joints all over  the body, including those found in the foot.

Osteoarthritis (often abbreviated to OA) is a joint condition that is progressively degenerating, meaning that over time the disease wears away at structures within a joint. The disease is thought to be a consequence of a number of factors working together, including the stress of regular usage, injury, a weakening of support muscles, weight (if a person is obese their weight can bear down and cause additional stress to a joint), and a genetic pre-disposition to the disease. In most cases the disease affects older people, and this is most likely because these factors work over long periods of time to wear down on joint structures.

OA usually starts off with the wearing down of protective materials in a joint, most particularly cartilage. Cartilage is a collagen based substance that facilitates bone to bone contact within a joint, limiting what would otherwise be painful friction as two bones meet at these points. As collagen within cartilage wears down, friction between the bones increases, causing pain. The joint as a whole becomes inflamed (the characteristic feature of arthritis), and a number of other changes within the joint as a whole, including bone deformities, exacerbate the condition. Over time the pain becomes increasingly severe and the joint’s range of motion reduces over time. In response to this pain, most people stop moving the joint as much, which actually worsens the condition as supporting muscles weaken (referred to medically as atrophy).

When OA affects joints in the lower body, including those of the foot and ankle, movement becomes extremely painful and often restricted. Podiatrists can help manage the pain and encourage movement, which, despite being painful, actually helps to stave off further joint deterioration.

Podiatry and the care of osteoarthritis

OA can be carefully managed through lifestyle changes, exercise, and pain relief. In the worst of cases surgical joint replacement remains an option. This is a disease that affects about 8 million people here in the UK alone, a significant portion of the overall population. As such managing the condition through a network of different specialists is extremely important.

Podiatrists can assess the impact of OA on joints and movement through a study called gait analysis. This involves a careful study of how a person is moving, the focus being on the movement of the ankle and the foot. Gait analysis can also make use of X-ray and ultrasound technologies to provide a view of the architecture of the foot and how it has been affected by the disease.

Through gait analysis podiatrists can prepare specialised insoles that support the foot in a manner that reduces pain and restores normal movement. Our bodies will often automatically adjust how we walk in response to pain, and such changes in movement can have negative long term effects. Orthotics have proven to be an extremely effective tool in OA treatment, and are a valuable aspect of podiatric care.

Beyond orthotics podiatrists can offer treatments that remedy ailments of the foot that often occur as a result of OA and altered gait. These include corns and bunions, as well as deformities of the foot and toe nails which can sometimes be remedied through minor surgery.

Podiatric services are now a provision of most NHS Trusts in the UK, and if arthritis is impeding your movement and lifestyle then treatment is usually free through a GP referral.  Private podiatric services are also readily available across the UK.

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