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30th November, 20206 min read

Can rheumatoid arthritis affect my feet?

Medical reviewer: Healthily's medical team
Author: Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 30/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition where your immune system starts to attack the soft tissue around your joints. This process causes inflammation, which can make your joints swollen, painful or stiff.

If it’s not treated properly, rheumatoid arthritis can also damage the bones and tendons around your joints, causing long-term damage and permanent disability.

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect any joint in your body. But it often starts in smaller joints, like the ones in your hands and your feet.

If you think you might have rheumatoid arthritis, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as you can. Early treatment can help to reduce the chances of long-term or permanent joint damage and allow you to carry on with your day-to-day activities.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Your immune system is designed to fight off infections and diseases. But it isn’t a perfect system. If it gets too active, your immune system can make a mistake and start attacking healthy cells.

In people with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system starts attacking the cells that line and cushion your joints.

It’s not clear why this happens, but it is likely to be caused by a combination of genetics (your DNA), environmental factors and lifestyle choices that encourage inflammation.

For example, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) warns that smoking cigarettes when you have certain genes can significantly increase your risk of developing the condition.

But rheumatoid arthritis can also be triggered by a viral infection, trauma or a stressful life event, like a death in the family or a divorce.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are joint pain and swelling. The pain is normally described as aching or throbbing pain that’s worse in the mornings, or after you’ve had a long rest.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may also notice that:

  • your joints — including the joints in your feet — are stiff for more than 30 minutes in the morning, or after after resting for a long time
  • your joints are red or hot to the touch
  • your joints feel very tender
  • you feel very tired
  • you feel generally unwell, and have flu-like symptoms like fever or muscle pain

You may also notice that your pain comes and goes over time — getting worse (or flaring) for a few days, and then fading away for several weeks.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a symmetrical arthritis, which means that it normally attacks the same joints on both sides of your body.

It’s also a systemic illness, which means that it can affect other parts of your body. Some people who have rheumatoid arthritis find that they get symptoms of dry eyes, for example, or chest pain if their heart and lungs are affected.

Rheumatoid arthritis in your feet

Experts say that up to 90% of people with rheumatoid arthritis have problems with their feet. If you get rheumatoid arthritis in your feet, you may notice that it causes pain and swelling in the small joints in your toes or at the front of your foot.

But rheumatoid arthritis can affect any of the joints in your foot. Some people get pain and swelling in their ankles as well.

If left untreated, the inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent damage to the bones and joints in your foot. If this happens, you may notice that your joints become weaker or more unstable -- or that your foot starts to change shape slightly.

You may also find that you struggle to walk around, or keep up with your day-to-day activities. Other signs that rheumatoid arthritis is affecting your feet include:

  • fluid-filled swellings (bursae) on the balls of your feet
  • skin and nail problems like corns or calluses, which develop when swollen joints rub against each other or other parts of your foot
  • circulation and nerve problems in your lower limbs, including pinching or tingling pain and conditions like Raynaud’s phenomenon (a condition that affects the blood supply to the fingers and toes)

These symptoms can be treated, but experts warn that it’s best to try to rest your feet while you’re experiencing a flare-up (where your symptoms get worse for a few days or weeks, and then go back to normal). This will help to prevent long-term damage and limit your chances of disability.

You can also get insoles and orthotics to support the joints in your feet.

But it’s important to treat rheumatoid arthritis quickly, because the condition can cause permanent damage to your feet and other joints if it’s allowed to progress. If you have symptoms and you think it might be affecting your feet, speak to a doctor as soon as you can.

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

There’s no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the condition can be managed with specialist medications and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Some people also find that physiotherapy helps and there are some things that you can do to manage your symptoms at home, such as eating well, and doing plenty of regular exercise.

If osteoarthritis is affecting your feet, your doctor may be able to refer you to a foot specialist (podiatrist) who can help you to support your joints and prevent long-term damage to your feet.

Key points

  • rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that occurs when your immune system starts to attack the cells that line your joints
  • if you have rheumatoid arthritis in your feet, you may find it hard to walk or carry on with your day to day activities
  • rheumatoid arthritis can also cause long-term damage to the joints in your feet -- making your joints weaker, and changing the shape of your feet
  • it's best to rest your feet if you are having a flare up, and contact a doctor so that they can help you treat the condition
  • the condition can be treated with specialist medications. You can also get insoles and orthotics that will support your feet, so see a doctor as soon as you can
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