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Although the bones in the toes are small, they play an essential role in walking and balance. Toe injuries can also affect a person’s gait, harming other joints such as the hips or knees. The crucial role of the toes in everyday life means that a broken toe can be inconvenient and extremely painful.

Although some people believe that they cannot do anything about a broken toe, this is not always the case. In fact, health professionals should evaluate most toe fractures. Untreated broken toes can lead to painful problems later.

Foot fractures are common, so it is a good idea to know the symptoms of a broken toe and when to contact a doctor.

Read on to learn how to recognize and treat a broken toe, the different types of fractures and breaks, healing times, and more.

In most cases, a podiatrist, orthopedic surgeon, or family doctor will diagnose a broken toe using a physical exam and an X-ray.

A doctor can often see a displaced fracture with a visual exam of the toe, but they may still recommend an X-ray to assess the damage and determine what treatment the individual needs.

By seeing a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and following instructions about caring for the toe, individuals may encourage the healing process. Treatments for a broken toe include:

  • Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE): The RICE method is useful for many types of injuries, including broken toes. It can decrease pain and help the toe heal faster. This may be all a person needs to treat a minor toe fracture.
  • Buddy taping: This involves wrapping the toe and taping it to the adjacent toe to keep it supported and protected.
  • A post-surgery shoe or boot: These devices have a stiff sole that allows a person to walk without bending the toe. It also helps keep some of the body’s weight off the sore toe.
  • Bone setting: For more severe displaced fractures, a doctor may need to put the bones back in their proper place for healing. They would usually do so with numbing medicine to decrease pain.
  • Surgery: Surgery may be necessary for more serious toe fractures. Surgeons may need to place a pin in the toe to align the bones and enable them to heal in the right place.
  • Antibiotics or a tetanus shot: In some cases, doctors will suggest additional medications in order to prevent infection. This can happen when the skin becomes damaged during the bone break.

People can purchase a selection of ice packs and tape online.

It is important to note that a person should not use ice packs for more than 10 minutes at a time. They should never place them directly onto the skin, as this may cause frostbite.

People should also not wrap the tape around a toe in a circular fashion, as this may constrict the blood supply to the toe and cause permanent injury.

Standard treatment options

As one scientific paper explains, doctors have standard or default treatment options for toe fractures. These vary depending on whether or not the fracture is in the big toe. In all cases, the aim is for the individual to keep their toe as still and straight as possible to better the healing process.

Big toe fractures

Treatment for these fractures is in 2 stages. Doctors will first recommend either a walking boot or a cast, along with a toe plate, for around 2–3 weeks. They will then recommend a rigid-sole shoe for 3–4 weeks.

Fractures in a smaller toe

Doctors will recommend buddy taping and a rigid-sole shoe for 4–6 weeks.

The most common symptoms of broken toes are pain and difficulty walking.

The intensity of these symptoms may vary from person to person. Some people may be able to continue walking on the toe after a break, while others may find the pain debilitating.

Factors that can affect symptoms of a broken toe include:

  • the severity of the break
  • whether the broken bone has moved out of its proper location or become displaced
  • how the bone broke
  • where it is broken, including whether it is near a joint
  • other medical conditions, such as gout or arthritis

There are a few ways a toe could break. These include stress fractures, falls, and dropping an object on the foot.

Because the symptoms vary so widely and breaks can be mild to severe, many individuals will struggle to tell the difference between a broken toe and another injury, such as a muscle sprain or a bad bruise.

The symptoms of each type of break are as follows:

Traumatic fractures

Painful and significant events, such as falling, stubbing the toe very hard, or dropping an object on the toe, can lead to broken toes. These types of breaks, known as traumatic fractures, are common in athletes.

Traumatic fractures can range from minor to severe. Sometimes, a person hears a “pop” or “crack” sound as the bone breaks, but this is not always the case.

The symptoms of a traumatic fracture will begin immediately after the event and may include:

Many traumatic fractures feature a visible bruise that is dark purple, gray, or black.

These symptoms can persist for several weeks if a person does not seek treatment.

Stress fractures

Stress fractures are usually small hairline breaks that occur after repeated stress on the bone. They are a type of overuse injury and often occur in the bones of the legs and feet.

Stress fractures may occur months or years after starting an activity, such as running, that puts stress on the bones.

As a 2021 review explains, stress fractures can occur when muscles in the toe become too weak to absorb impact. Without the support of the muscle, the toe bone becomes vulnerable to pressure and impact. Too much stress on the bone eventually causes it to crack.

Symptoms of a stress fracture in the toe include:

  • pain that occurs after activities such as walking or running
  • pain that goes away with rest
  • soreness or tenderness when touched
  • swelling without bruising

Displaced fractures

A displaced fracture means the broken bone has moved out of place. This may occur with more severe traumatic fractures.

As a recent article explains, a displaced fracture in the toe can cause the toe to appear crooked. In some cases, a displaced fracture may break the skin and result in the bone protruding out of a wound.

Healing times for broken toes will no doubt vary from person to person.

However, the average healing time for a big toe fracture will be around 5–7 weeks. For fractures in smaller toes, it will be around 4–6 weeks.

While it is possible for things to go wrong, research shows that only a small proportion of people with broken toes need a surgical follow-up.

Sprains differ from fractures in that the former affects muscles and ligaments.

A sprained toe arises when there is an injury to the muscles and ligaments in the toe. But although sprained toes and fractured toes are rather different, a recent review makes it clear that their symptoms can be similar.

Symptoms of sprained toes include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • difficulty walking

Sprained toes can take around 4–6 weeks to heal. As with broken toes, R.I.C.E and stiff-soled shoes are a mainstay of sprained toe therapy.

As a 2017 article explains, different kinds of toe fractures have some common complications:

  • Sesamoid fracture: Sesamoids are small bones at the base of the big toe. Sesamoid fractures may have difficulty healing, causing long-term pain and negatively impacting athletic performance.
  • Hallux fractures: Hallux fractures are fractures of the big toe proper. They can cause deformities of the foot and big toe. These fractures may also reduce a person’s range of motion in their big toe, leading to long term difficulties walking.
  • Surgery: Surgical interventions to treat toe fractures may cause nerve damage and lead to infection.
  • Cartilage injury: If a fracture enters into a joint, this can injure the cartilage and lead to deformity and traumatic osteoarthritis of the joint.

Injuries and accidents are not always avoidable, but the following steps may help minimize the risk of breaking a toe:

  • Avoid wearing non-supportive shoes, such as flip-flops: Flip-flops offer little support to the foot, which can cause unnecessary strain on the muscles and bones. A person wearing such shoes may easily stub their toe. Additionally, these shoes offer no protection for the toes during a fall.
  • Replace footwear when the soles begin to wear out: When shoe soles become worn and smooth, a person may fall or trip more easily. This could lead to a toe injury. Examining the bottom of shoes regularly to look for signs of wear may help.
  • Exercise: A 2020 review found that regular exercise can reduce the risk of a fall in people aged 65 and over. Falls can cause injuries to the toes, including fractures.
  • Manage diabetes: People with diabetes are at risk of neuropathy, which damages the nerves in the feet. This can lead to balance problems, more falls, and injuries to the feet that take longer to heal. Indeed, the National Health Service (NHS) notes that foot problems, in general, can be worse for people with diabetes.

Broken toes are often able to heal on their own. Nevertheless, it is best to contact a healthcare professional for the correct treatment to ensure the bone heals properly.

Proper medical care ensures that a minor break now does not lead to a significant issue later.

There are several different types of breaks a person may incur to the toes. Common causes of broken toes include trauma from sporting injures, stubbing the toes, and tripping and falling.

Treatment and healing time for a broken toe will vary depending on the cause and severity of the break.

Anyone who thinks they may have sprained or broken a toe should seek medical attention to ensure that the break heals properly and does not cause long lasting problems due to incorrectly healing.