Stiffness or pain in the feet, toes, or ankles might be indicative of several different progressive, chronic conditions. This is not surprising when one considers that the foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This complex structure is the source of balance and mobility, and stiff feet can foreshadow problems in other parts of the body. In the same vein, problems or diseases in other parts of the body can cause stiff feet.
Arthritis, either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, might be the cause of stiff feet. Osteoarthritis is the most common arthritic malady, involving a gradual compaction and deterioration of the cartilage that cushions the body’s joints. Stiff feet are sometimes the result of the breakdown of the joint at the base of the big toe. This joint — referred to as the metatarsophalangeal joint in podiatrist circles and trivia games — becomes stiff or immobile. A person must alter the way he walks when the normal flex and bend of the big toe is absent, leading to stiffness in the entire foot.
Rheumatoid arthritis can, over time, cause the foot’s arch to collapse, leading to pain and stiffness. This disease can also cause bunions, calluses, corns, and a general soreness on the soles of the feet. Osteoarthritis can affect any bone in the foot, as well as a loss of function in the ankle joint.
A much rarer cause of stiff feet is a rheumatic disease known as scleroderma. This ailment causes the skin to thicken on the hands, face, and feet. The thickening tightens the skin and causes a stiff feeling. Scleroderma can also affect the internal organs, but it is very uncommon.
Simple as it may seem, injuries and improperly fitted footwear can contribute to stiff feet. A woman with a preference for high heels sometimes experiences a shortening of the Achilles tendon. Stiffness and pain can occur if she suddenly reverts to flat shoes or walks barefoot. High heels are also sometimes responsible for scarring and callusing of the connective tissue on the sole of the foot, causing a painful stiffness. These syndromes can both be treated, and usually repaired, by an orthopedist, rheumatologist, or podiatrist.
Many people may experience stiff feet upon waking. This is common with age and mild forms of arthritis, and the feeling usually dissipates as the person begins to move about. The joints of an older individual are usually lacking in cartilage and the fluid that lubricates the joints. The joint is lubricated with increased movement, and the stiffness of the feet lessens.