Younger patients can experience arthritis in their ankles. There is no age limit, young or old, for this painful disorder. Some people have arthritis caused by a systemic disorder like juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Most have a more traumatic type of arthritis caused by an injury.
In the majority of younger patients with ankle arthritis, their arthritis is usually a secondary effect from too many ankle sprains. Most can relate a twisting type of injury which caused a deep cartilage injury that is often called osteochondritis dissicans. This has been seen to occur with no obvious trauma, but most can relate a history of a severe sprain. Over time, the injured cartilage starts to deteriorate, then flake and finally many patients have bone on bone contact which is extremely painful.
Osteochondritis often causes significant pain, swelling and stiffness in the ankle. Patients come in several months after experiencing a bad sprain complaining of continued popping, instability, stiffness and pain. Some complain of severe discomfort, but most relate a chronic annoying ache.
Ankle sprains should not be ignored, because many lead to chronic instability and eventual arthritis. A physical examination by your podiatrist is usually followed by x-rays. If plain film x-rays are negative and you have had pain for more than 2 months from an ankle sprain, an MRI is indicated to rule out a cartilage injury of the talar dome. This MRI can evaluate the cartilage of the talar dome for obvious flaps and for subchondral injury to the underlying bone. A chip fracture can be quite painful and feel like a clicking every time you move your ankle.
Conservative therapy for osteochondritis includes bracing, physical therapy, anti-inflammatories and rest. Many people do well with just conservative therapy and maintain their joints by working on their proprioception and strength.
Unfortunately, surgical intervention of ankle arthroscopy is often needed to remove the cartilage fragments and place tiny drill holes in the deficit to encourage the formation of fibrocartilage or scar tissue. Severe defects may require cartilage grafting.
So, for all you young sports stars out there: Remember that ignoring multiple ankle sprains and ankle instability is usually a prescription for long term arthritis. Osteochondiritis leads to good old fashioned osteoarthritis. Arthritis pain can be treated with anti-inflammatories, bracing, and in severe cases; an ankle fusion of joint replacement. In the end, most people wish they had consulted their doctor for their ankle sprains early on and avoided long term arthritic pain.