Fusion of a joint (also known as arthrodesis) is intended to relieve pain and maintain or improve function for patients with ankle arthritis. In ankle arthrodesis the ankle bones are fused into one bone. This eliminates the joint motion and reduces pain coming from the arthritic joint. Surgery is recommended when the arthritis is severe and the simple non-operative treatments no longer work.
Traditionally ankle joint fusion was always carried out by open surgery, requiring longer incisions. For many people now the surgery can be carried out by keyhole (arthroscopic) surgery. This means the incisions are no more than a centimetre leading to much less pain and potentially an easier recovery. Your surgeon will be able to advise whether the arthroscopic technique is suitable for you.
You would have a general or spinal anaesthetic. Small cuts are made at the front of the ankle to insert a camera and tools to remove any remaining cartilage from the joint surfaces. This creates contact between the bone surfaces allowing them to heal together.
The bones of the ankle joint are then held in place using screws which are inserted through separate 1cm incisions. The surgeon takes x-rays during the operation to confirm the alignment and the position of the screws.
You will usually be able to get home the next day although sometimes you can go home on the day of surgery. You would go home with your ankle either in cast or a moonboot. There will be some swelling and you will need to keep your foot elevated on a footstool in the early recovery period.
Usually you would be unable to bear weight for the first six weeks. You would walk either on crutches or using a knee walker. A knee walker is like a scooter which allows you to walk loading both legs keeping your hands free. They can be purchased or hired on a weekly basis.
You would be seen in clinic at the two week mark to check the wounds and again at various intervals, usually at 6 weeks, 12 weeks and 6 months for x-rays to check on the progress of the bone healing.
After 12 weeks you would come out of the boot and start to mobilise freely. It can take another three months for the strength to fully return. Your walking distance will steadily increase over that time. You can return to driving when you can safely use the pedals in the car (although if the surgery is on the left ankle and your car is an automatic you can usually drive while you are still in the boot). You would gradually return to all your normal activities over that time.
Once the bones have healed an ankle fusion is strong enough to withstand all normal activities. You can normally return to more physically demanding jobs or to sports such as cycling and skiing. Some people will be able to return to running.
Most people will not walk with a limp after ankle fusion. The ankle joint will no longer move. For some people with problems in other joints of the foot this will be more restrictive. For most people in whom the problems are confined to the ankle joint, the remaining joints will continue to move normally meaning the whole foot remains very mobile.
All surgery carries risks, and ankle fusion is no exception. The risks will be discussed with your treating surgeon and in particular whether you are at higher than normal risk. These include: