The different types of injections for ankle osteoarthritis pain

Ross A. Hauser, MD.

The evidence for Non-surgical treatments for Ankle Osteoarthritis

In this article, we will discuss the research surrounding the different types of ankle injections for patients with ankle osteoarthritis. We will also focus on the types of injections these are and what their function is. Some injections will be painkillers and anti-inflammatory in nature. Other injections are designed to address ankle ligament instability, a leading cause of non-traumatic wear and tear ankle degenerative disease and in many cases a cause of post-traumatic osteoarthritis of the ankle resulting from the injury.

Article summary and learning points:

In our office’s 29 years of service, we have seen countless people with ankle osteoarthritis. Many are very active people, heavily into sports. Many have a physically challenging job, many come to us after suffering an injury or accident that was very damaging. They all have a story of a “non-healing” ankle that is now destined for fusion or replacement surgery.

What we typically hear in our examination rooms are probably stories that sound very similar to your own. 

I have had an ankle sprain since I was a teenager

I have been in physical therapy forever

I am bone on bone 

What almost all these people have in common is that:

Can injections help you avoid surgery? Understanding what is happening in your ankle. Here is the progression of ankle instability caused by chronic ankle sprains leading to disabling full-blown osteoarthritis. This is what stops you from running.

If you are an athlete, a runner, someone on their feet all day, someone with a physically demanding job, and you have had chronic ankle sprains, the more you try the conservative treatments of Ice and medications and ankle braces, the more you seem destined to ultimately requiring surgery. The simple fact of the matter is, you are not getting better, you are getting worse. Your treatment plan now is more about slowing the degenerative condition of your ankle than regenerating and repairing the weakened elements in your ankle/heel.

Even your doctors believe that you are on a one-way path to surgery:

Some doctors, however, think that they can alter your path to surgery and heal your ankle by regenerating the damaged ligaments and supporting structures with simple injections.

My ankle is getting worse and worse – can’t I slow this down or should I just wait until the surgery is available?

Many of you reading this article have had ankle problems for a long time. Some of you are thinking if it were only my ankle I could probably deal with it. But it is not only your ankle, it is your knee, your foot, your hip, and low back pain too. Some of you are probably waking up in the morning, unsure how much weight to put on your foot or ankle because some mornings you can get right out of bed, other mornings you get up and reach for the wall because there is pain and instability and you need to catch your breath before you fall back onto the bed. Those are the mornings you probably tell yourself or your spouse, “I need to do something about this before it gets worse.” Then again, you may have been saying this for years.

So just how fast is your ankle going bad? How much do the other joints hurting impact your ankle?

Here is what doctors at the University of North Carolina are finding out. It is a study from December 2020. (1) The point of research like this is not to try to convince someone that they are getting worse, you probably don’t need much of that type of convincing, it is the doctors suggesting to other doctors how they may be able to help or make suggestions to people with ankle pain how to treat this problem. Here are the learning points:

The findings:

Among ankles with some type of traumatic ankle injury previously:

So what should the doctors who read this study suggest to their patients to slow down degenerative progression? 

When these things don’t work, then there is conservative care with anti-inflammatories, pain medications, ankle braces, physical therapy, cortisone injections, then surgery.

Can you really avoid surgery? The surgeons say patients must address ankle instability early to stop the degenerative progression.

Hopefully, you are at a stage where the damage to your ankle is not irreversible. If you have chronic instability but a good range of motion in your ankle, we believe we can help you avoid future surgery and strengthen your ankle. The key is fixing the instability before the instability creates significant bone damage.

In December 2016, the Journal of British Sports Medicine (2published the Executive Committee of the International Ankle Consortium position paper on the progression of ankle instability caused by chronic ankle sprains to disabling full-blown osteoarthritis and the need for ankle surgery or fusion. These are the treatment guidelines doctors follow today.

That position paper which was compiled by researchers from the University of Kentucky, University College Dublin, UK National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, the University of Delaware, University of North Carolina, among many other medical universities stated:

Simply: People are at high risk of developing ankle osteoarthritis. It is a big problem.

Are surgeons even addressing Lateral ankle sprain?

Building on these findings is a July 2021 paper published in the journal BioMed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders. (3) What the researchers of this study wanted to know is if surgeons were using the current treatment criteria for patients with a lateral ankle sprain. To test how surgeons were treating this problem a questionnaire survey was conducted among Japanese orthopedic surgeons.  The survey was composed of 12 questions that were developed with consideration of the recommendations in the current clinical practice guidelines published by the Dutch orthopaedic society. The questions in this study were focused on the diagnosis, conservative treatment, rehabilitation, and the criteria for return to sports.

So what does this mean in your search of comparisons for what are the best injections for ankle pain? Doctors may not be addressing ligament instability as the cause of your ankle problems, instead, they may be loo0king for end-stage evidence, the loss of cartilage, the bone spurs, the loss or range of motion, the chronic pain. In a patient’s desire to relive their ankle pain with injections, an examination of ankle instability and the impact on acceleration osteoarthritis should be undertaken.

Ligament treatment is the key to stopping the progression of ankle osteoarthritis

For many people, it is easy to understand that they have a loose ankle or an ankle that feels like it is giving way. They have problems walking, their ankle makes a lot of crunching, cracking, and popping noises, some have chronic swelling that never goes away, and their ankle hurts all the time. What is not always as easily understood when all they hear at the doctor’s office is “cartilage, cartilage, cartilage,” is that they have damaged, weakened ankle ligaments. “Cartilage, cartilage, cartilage,” is a problem of damaged ligaments.

A June 2019 study (4) from Army-Baylor University, which used the above 2016 study as one of their references offered these guidelines:

The recommendations above are for the early management of lateral ankle sprain as the best way to avoid surgery. Recently, doctors from Rutgers University in New Jersey published their findings in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research (5) that listed the top five common athletic injuries as high-risk factors for developing osteoarthritis, among the top 5 HIGH-RISK injuries?

In summary, ankle sprains cause ankle osteoarthritis by creating an environment of joint instability caused by weakened ligaments. Treat the unstable ligaments – prevent a worsening of factors that lead to advancing ankle osteoarthritis.

In 2010, our Caring Medical research team published this abstract in the medical journal Practical Pain Management:(6)

Here are some of our learning points:

These were the reasons we gave for suggesting another way of treatment to prevent and repair degenerative ankle disease.  Our other way is Prolotherapy injections.

Untreated damage to ankle ligaments = ankle osteoarthritis

Picture demonstrating chronic ankle instability from ligament injury. Describing symptoms of popping, loss of motion, foot and toe pain, numbness in toes, cracking and crunching sounds.

This illustration demonstrates ankle instability caused by ankle ligament damage. Ankle ligament damage can be seen in symptoms of ankle popping, loss of motion, pain, arch cramping, foot, and toe pain, cracking and crepitation, loss of muscle strength, numbness in toes.

The ankle consists of an intricate structure of bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. This complexity provides stability but also exposes the ankle to damage and instability through chronic ankle sprains. That these injuries commonly lead to osteoarthritis so we should not be surprised by research that confirms this.

Damage to ankle ligaments, including the talofibular ligament, can bring about ligament laxity. This allows the ankle bones to rub together abnormally, having a degenerative effect on the joint often demonstrated by ankle popping and dislocations.

As a person continues to walk and bear weight on the unstable ankle joint, the bones abnormally wear and tear on the cartilage. In this situation, the body will attempt to stabilize the joint. Because ligaments have less of a blood supply compared to other tissues, such as muscle, they are less likely to heal on their own. The joint will typically inflame, in an attempt to bring healing cells to the joint. An overgrowth of bone is also likely to occur in an attempt to stabilize the joint.

Lateral ankle instability: Damage to the anterior talofibular ligament, the calcaneofibular ligament, and the posterior talofibular ligament and the progression of osteoarthritis

In the updated 2020 medical publication Stat Pearls (7), the problems of lateral ankle instability and the progression to ankle osteoarthritis is observed this way:

“Lateral ankle instability is a complex condition that can, at times, prove difficult to evaluate and treat for general practitioners. The difficulty in evaluation and treatment is due in part to the ankle complex being composed of three joints: talocrural, subtalar, and tibiofibular syndesmosis. All three joints function in conjunction to allow complex motions of the ankle joint. The main contributors to the stability of the ankle joint are the articular surfaces, the ligamentous complex, and the musculature – which allows for the dynamic stabilization of the joints.”

The ligamentous complex – the ligament function

It is easy to see why then when you walk, your foot turns inwards causing pain, there is a pain when walking up and down steps, when driving, if it is your right ankle, you have dull throbbing pain when stepping on gas or brakes. Your weakened ligaments are allowing for your talus to bang against the mortise causing loss of cartilage, pain, and the development of bone spurs.

Diagnosis and treatment of ankle arthritis

Traditional diagnosis will often include the collection of one’s medical history; a physical examination; discussion of the frequency, intensity, and duration of the pain; identification of the location of the pain, and a history of a treatment since the onset of the pain. Sometimes a physician may analyze how the patient walks, known as gait analysis, to determine how the bones in the leg and foot align while walking. X-rays will usually show the spacing between bones and the level of cartilage degeneration. To see the joint in motion and perform stress maneuvers to determine the level of joint stability, musculoskeletal ultrasound is utilized. In addition, the providers should perform a physical examination to check the range of motion and ligament laxity/joint instability.

Your familiar trail of treatment started with conservative care options that included pain relievers that were stronger than the ones you can purchase over-the-counter and anti-inflammatories that were stronger than the ones you can purchase over-the-counter to reduce pain and swelling. Steroid injections such as cortisone are often prescribed in order to bring temporary pain relief. Arch supports in the shoes may be recommended to compensate for the change in one’s gait and to cushion the act of walking.

Research: the ankle osteoarthritis anti-inflammatory path of treatment is NOT good.

Doctors from The University of Melbourne and the University of South Hampton published a study in March 2019 in the journal Drugs and Aging (8). The title of the paper is “Clinical Assessment and Management of Foot and Ankle Osteoarthritis: A Review of Current Evidence and Focus on Pharmacological Treatment.”

Let’s see if the path the doctors describe in their study sounds like the path you took to get to significant ankle osteoarthritis. Let’s listen to the research:

The MRI is sending you to a surgery that you may not need

This is a March 2019 study from leading physicians. They are telling you that non-surgical options are neglected when it comes to treating ankle osteoarthritis and that since there is no diagnostic criteria for ankle osteoarthritis, you will get an MRI or a scan to help decide the treatment options. We have seen so many patients over the years who were sent to surgery for an MRI abnormality and not treated for what was really happening in their ankle.

Let’s get back to the study:

What is all this saying?

The problems of ankle instability and osteoarthritis are so clearly misunderstood, that doctors are using hip and knee guidelines to treat the ankle patient and that these treatment guidelines are NOT successful.

Ankle Fusion and Ankle Replacement

For a much more detailed discussion of ankle surgery please see our article on Ankle Fusion and Ankle Replacement.

Typically, when an MRI shows an abnormality, and the problem of the ankle is not well understood, there is a surgical recommendation. With the surgical recommendation comes a pain management plan. Usually increased doses of medications until surgery day.

Arthrodesis is a surgical pain-relieving procedure that fuses the bones of the joint making it one continuous bone. The surgeon uses pins or screws and rods to hold the bones in the proper position while the joints fuse. This also dramatically reduces mobility and range of motion.

Doctors at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, College of Medicine, Chungbuk National University in Korea writing in the journal Foot and Ankle International (9) found:

“Ankle fusion combined with a calcaneal sliding osteotomy (surgeons break your heel bone to restructure the joint complex) can be an effective operative option for ball and socket ankle deformity with advanced arthritis. In spite of increased complication rate, reliable pain relief, and restoration of gait ability through correcting hindfoot malalignment could improve the quality of life.”

In other words, you need to gamble reliable pain relief against increased complication rate and the chance for greater pain and immobility.

As far as ankle replacement goes, this is addressed in a November 2016 (10) paper from Canadian University researchers who also published in the journal Foot and Ankle International.

“Repeated surgery can be a measure of the failure of primary surgery. Future reoperations might be avoided if the cause is recognized and procedures or devices modified accordingly. Reoperations result in costs to both patients and the health care system. This paper proposes a new classification system for reoperations in end-stage ankle arthritis, and analyzes reoperation rates for ankle joint replacement and arthrodesis surgeries.”

These doctors looked at data with a 25% re-operation rate in patients.

Now you may say to yourself, that is 2016, certainly, things have improved since then?

In some ways yes, and in some ways no. Here is a study from June 2020. This study is about surgeons talking to surgeons about total ankle replacement. This study appeared in The Journal of foot and ankle surgery. (11) These are the summary learning points:

The study continues to discuss a new procedure and the use of protective instruments to protect the surrounding tissue through the total ankle replacement procedure.

Injections for ankle osteoarthritis. Which are best?

Having now laid the groundwork for understanding how ankle injections may help you avoid surgery. Let’s explore the injections.

In February 2021, researchers publishing in the journal International Orthopaedics (12) tried to offer evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of intra-articular injective treatments for ankle lesions ranging from osteochondral lesions of the talus to osteoarthritis. They explored previously published research on:

In all the injection research there were no severe adverse events were reported.

Conclusion: This meta-analysis supports the safety of intra-articular treatment for ankle osteoarthritis and osteochondral lesions of the talus, while only very low evidence supports the efficacy of Hyaluronic acid (HA) injections in terms of better results versus placebo for the treatment of ankle osteoarthritis, and other conclusions are hindered by the scarcity of the available literature.

In other words, there is not enough evidence in the research to support the use of one injection treatment over another.

This study built upon the same theme of earlier research, for example, an October 2018 (13) study on whether Intra-articular injections commonly used to treat knee arthritis pain are any good at helping people with ankle arthritis.

In examining

The researchers found evidence from small trials favors

Hyaluronic acid for ankle osteoarthritis

An October 2020 study published in The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery (14) examined the benefits and effectiveness of hyaluronic acid injections in treating ankle osteoarthritis.

The idea behind hyaluronic acid injections is to protect the ankle by reintroducing lost or diminished hyaluronic acid in the ankle’s synovial fluid. The synovial fluid is a thick gel-like liquid that helps cushion the ankle and acts to absorb the daily impact of walking and running. The treatment of Hyaluronic Acid Injections is also called Viscosupplementation – supplementing the “viscosity” or the thick, sticky, gel-like properties of the synovial fluid.

We have seen many patients who have tried hyaluronic acid injections. These injections have worked for these people in the short term. These patients are now in our office because the short-term has not transpired to the long-term and now a different treatment approach needs to be undertaken.

Here are the summary learning points of the above research:

This was a small-scale study of 15 patients. The researchers did suggest a larger scale study may provide more conclusive results.

Botox injections for ankle osteoarthritis

A paper published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research (15) compared the efficacy of intraarticular Botulinum toxin type A against intraarticular hyaluronate plus rehabilitation exercise in patients with ankle osteoarthritis.

Conclusions: Treatment with intraarticular Botulinum toxin type A or hyaluronate injection plus rehabilitation exercise was associated with improvements in pain, physical function, and balance in patients with ankle osteoarthritis. These effects were rapid at 2 weeks and might last for at least 6 months. There was no difference in effectiveness between the two interventions.

Addressing the underlying cause of ankle arthritis – joint instability – Prolotherapy injections

Dextrose injection, Prolotherapy offers a non-surgical option that corrects the underlying ligament damage and ankle joint instability which led to arthritis in the first place. It is a regenerative injection procedure in which a dextrose-based proliferant solution is injected into the joint, and along with the ligaments of the ankle.

Prolotherapy injections create a mild inflammatory reaction in the area of damaged tissue. This dramatically increases the blood supply to an area where the blood supply is usually weak. This signals to the body that healing is needed.

In this video, Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C demonstrates treatment to the lateral ankle

The treatment begins immediately in the video

This is comprehensive Prolotherapy, meaning there are a lot of injections. The patient getting the injections in this video is comfortable and tolerates the treatment well. The patient in this video is having the lateral or outer ankle treated.

Published research from our Caring Medical doctors, that appeared in Clinical Medicine Insights Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders, we discussed this patient case:

Hauser RA, Orlofsky A. Regenerative Injection Therapy with Whole Bone Marrow Aspirate for Degenerative Joint Disease: A Case Series. Clinical Medicine Insights Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2013;6:65-72. doi:10.4137/CMAMD.S10951.

The use of PRP and stem cells in ankle osteoarthritis patients

Let’s start with a brief explanation of treatments:

A demonstration of how we offer PRP and Prolotherapy.

Research on these treatments

There is not a lot of evidence to show that bone marrow concentrate injections work or do not work. In December 2016 researchers (16) cautioned:

“. . . there exists an overwhelming paucity of long-term data and high-level evidence supporting bone marrow aspirate concentrations for the treatment of chondral defects. Nonetheless, the evidence available showed varying degrees of beneficial results of bone marrow aspirate concentrations for the treatment of ankle cartilage defects. The limited literature presented in this review demonstrates the need for more advanced, comparative studies to further investigate the efficacy, safety, and techniques for bone marrow aspirate concentrations  in the treatment of osteochondral defects.”

In a well-cited and noted study, doctors in Iran found that stem cell injections into the ankle in patients with ankle osteoarthritis were safe, effective, and clinically beneficial long-term. This 2015 study, however, also stated: “Further studies are needed with larger sample sizes and longer follow-up periods to confirm these findings.”(17)

Some of those studies include research from doctors from Rizzoli Orthopedic Institute, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy who examined bone marrow-derived stem cells and their impact on osteochondral lesions of the talus in ankle osteoarthritis. Here is a summary of their research:

In April 2017, researchers in Japan reported on the safety and effectiveness of intra-articular injection of PRP in ankle osteoarthritis patients during a 24-week treatment period. They found that PRP resulted in no serious adverse effects and significantly reduced pain in patients with ankle osteoarthritis. (19)

In July 2019, doctors at the Department of Orthopedics Surgery at Tokat State Hospital in Turkey published these findings comparing Prolotherapy to Platelet Rich Plasma injections, in the journal Medical Science Monitor (20). In brief summary, the comparison showed both treatments worked very well in helping patients with Osteochondral Lesions of the Talus.

Here are the research highlights:

RESULTS Both PRP and Prolotherapy treatments resulted in greater improvement in pain and ankle functions at follow-up periods extending to 1 year and there was no difference between the groups for the outcomes at follow-up periods.

One shot of Platelet Rich Plasma -research says it can work

We constantly want to remind our patients and readers that one shot of PRP usually will not provide the pain relief or functional improvement that they are seeking. That is our realistic assessment based on twenty-eight years of experience with regenerative medicine. We also do not want people to have an over-expectation of what these treatments can do. One shot PRP treatments are usually not as effective as a more comprehensive PRP treatment plan.

The success of one injection of PRP into the ankle for ankle osteoarthritis was demonstrated in a February 2021 study published in The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery (21)

The learning and summary points of this research:

What the researchers were looking for was:

The researchers reported significant improvement in pain, function and a drop in medication usage and no serious side effects from the PRP injection. They concluded: “(Our) study showed promise for a single intraarticular injection of PRP in the treatment of ankle osteoarthritis.”

PRP injections for ankle osteoarthritis vs Placebo

In October 2021, a paper in JAMA the Journal of the American Association (22) wrote: “Among patients with ankle osteoarthritis, intra-articular PRP injections, compared with placebo injections, did not significantly improve ankle symptoms and function over 26 weeks. The results of this study do not support the use of PRP injections for ankle osteoarthritis.” A number of questions about these findings were also published in JAMA. One commentary wrote: “After review of the recent clinical trial examining platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections for ankle osteoarthritis, we think there are several methodological concerns that make its concluding statement of “not supporting the use of PRP injections for ankle osteoarthritis,” without qualifiers, appear to be an overstatement.” (23) Another commentary suggested findings were more appropriate “in the context of acute ankle fracture rather than ankle osteoarthritis.” (24) Another commentary suggested “compared with patients in the placebo group, those in the PRP group had a higher body mass index, which is significantly associated with ankle osteoarthritis and worsening ankle symptoms. Second, a higher proportion of patients in the PRP group had more advanced stages of ankle osteoarthritis using several different radiological classification systems. Third, because ankle osteoarthritis leads to poorer mental and physical quality of life, it is understandable that patients in the PRP group with higher body mass index and more advanced stages of ankle osteoarthritis had lower frequency of playing sports than those in the placebo group.” (25)

The research authors did share with colleagues some of the limitations of the study (26) including “an “optimal” PRP preparation protocol has not yet been established (therefore) analyzing the PRP content would not alter the outcome or conclusion of our trial. . . patients with polyarticular osteoarthritis might mask a possible intervention effect on the outcome measures. For instance, a potential benefit of PRP on ankle function may be masked by limitations that knee osteoarthritis poses on a patient’s function in daily activities and walking distance.” (I alluded to the impact of other joints on ankle osteoarthritis above.) In this article we describe the challenges of one injection versus multiple injections. As all the researchers point out, it is difficult determining the true effectiveness of PRP for ankle osteaorthritis because of the many variables of treatment. A study that does not suggest it use can be equally scientifically sound to a study that suggest great benefit of the use of PRP.

A demonstration of Stem Cell Therapy and Prolotherapy

In our clinics, stem cell therapy, which are cells taken from the patient, NOT donated “stem cells,” are used in only the most advanced cases. This is not our “go-to,” treatment. In the same way, the joint degeneration does not occur overnight, one cannot expect the repair to be achieved overnight. In more advanced cases it can take more than 1 treatment to achieve treatment goals.

The treatment begins at 1:06 of the video

Summary and contact us. Can we help you?

Prolotherapy can permanently strengthen the ligaments of the ankle, eliminating chronic ankle sprains, subluxations, and instability. Because H3 Prolotherapy stimulates the repair of the soft tissue injuries and instability that are associated with bunions, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, fallen arches, and Achilles tendinopathy, chronic pain from these conditions is eliminated. For advanced degenerative conditions, Cellular Prolotherapy (PRP or Stem cell Prolotherapy) is often utilized for accelerated recovery.

Cortisone injections, NSAIDs, and surgery work against a patient’s best long-term interest because they are degenerative by nature.  Patients with chronic ankle and foot pain need regenerative options to stop the degenerative process. This is also true for athletes with acute foot and ankle problems, as well as anyone who wishes to stay active without taking extended time off for surgical recovery.

We hope you found this article informative and it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding your ankle problems.  If you would like to get more information specific to your challenges please email us: Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff


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This article was updated August 3, 2022





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