Although the bones in the toes are small, they play an essential role in walking and balance. Their crucial role in everyday life means that a broken toe can be inconvenient and extremely painful.
Although some people believe that there is nothing to be done about a broken toe, this is not always the case. In fact, most toe fractures should be evaluated by a health professional. If left untreated, a broken toe can lead to painful problems later.
Toe injuries are common, so it is a good idea to know the symptoms of a broken toe and when to see a doctor.
Symptoms of a broken toe will 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 (been displaced)
- how it was broken
- 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, it can be difficult 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: A memorable break
A broken toe is often the result of a painful and significant event, such as falling, stubbing the toe very hard, or dropping an object on the toe. These types of breaks are known as traumatic fractures.
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:
- pain that does not go away with rest
Many traumatic fractures feature a visible bruise that is dark purple, gray, or black.
These symptoms can persist for several weeks if they are left untreated.
Stress fractures: Long-term damage
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 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.
Stress fractures often 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
A displaced fracture means the broken bone has moved out of place. This may occur with more severe traumatic fractures.
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.
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 fractures with a visual exam of the toe, but they may still recommend an X-ray to assess the damage and determine what treatment is needed.
Seeing a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and following instructions about how to care for the toe may encourage healing. Treatment for a broken toe includes:
- Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (R.I.C.E.). R.I.C.E. is useful for many types of injuries, including broken toes. It can decrease pain and help the toe heal faster. This may be all that 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 of 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. This is usually done with numbing medicine to decrease pain.
- Surgery. For more serious toe fractures, surgery may be needed. Surgeons may need to place a pin in the toe to align the bones and enable it to heal in the right place.
- Antibiotics or a tetanus shot. Additional medications might be needed to prevent infection if the skin was broken during the break.
A broken toe that is left untreated can cause:
- Long-term pain in the toe. Broken bones can cause ongoing pain if they are not allowed to heal properly. Walking on the broken toe too soon can delay or prevent healing. This may cause pain for months or even years after the injury.
- Arthritis in the affected joint. A person may develop arthritis if the bone is broken near a joint in the toe and is not correctly aligned before it heals.
- Permanent deformity of the bones in the toe. A deformity can lead to problems with moving the toe and walking. It can also cause rubbing, pain, or discomfort when wearing shoes.
- Infection. A displaced fracture that breaks the skin is at risk of developing an infection. Bacteria can enter through the broken skin, and some of these infections can be life-threatening.
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. They also increase the risk of a person stubbing their toe and offer no protection for the toes during a fall.
- Replace footwear when the soles begin to wear out. When shoe soles get worn and smooth, they increase the risk of falls that could lead to a toe injury. Examine the bottom of shoes regularly to look for signs of wear.
- Improve balance and posture. Regular physical activity, including strength training and balance exercises, can reduce the risk of slips and falls that result in toe fractures.
- Keep diabetes under control. 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.
Broken toes are often able to heal on their own. Nevertheless, it is best to see a healthcare professional for 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.