Injuries to the feet are common and can sometimes result in broken bones. Being able to recognize the symptoms of a broken foot can help determine how serious it is and when to contact a doctor.

This article looks at the causes and symptoms of a broken foot and when to seek medical help. It also discusses first aid, diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and prevention tips.

Bones can break in many ways. These can vary from small cracks and splinters to complete breaks that sever the bone. Severe breaks can tear or pierce the skin and leave a wound. These are known as open fractures.

If there is no visible displacement of the bone or a clear wound, a person may not be able to tell if a bone has broken. Also, some minor cracks or breaks may not result in much pain.

Deformity of a toe or an area of the foot, such as an unusual bulge, strongly indicates a break.

Other indications of a broken bone in the foot include:

  • hearing or feeling a snap or grinding noise when an injury happens
  • pain or difficulty moving the foot
  • pain or trouble walking or bearing weight on the foot
  • tenderness or pain when touching the injury
  • feeling faint, dizzy, or sick following the injury

What does a fractured foot look like?

When to contact a doctor

A person should seek immediate medical assistance if they suspect they have broken a bone in their foot or big toe. They should not attempt to drive. Broken smaller toes are less severe, and a person should attempt to treat them at home first.

A person should also seek immediate assistance if:

  • the leg, foot, or toe is deformed or pointing the wrong way
  • there is a wound or broken skin near the injury
  • the toes or foot are cold, numb, or tingling
  • the toes or foot have turned blue or grey
  • the foot is crushed

A person should also contact a doctor for any injury that prevents walking or causes persistent pain or swelling in the feet.

Injuries to the foot may cause a sprain rather than a break. A sprain is when the tissue between the bones, known as ligaments, tear, or stretch.

Sprains can result in similar symptoms to breaks, and it may be difficult for a person to tell the two conditions apart.

In general, a broken foot will result in more intense and continuous pain. In addition, swelling and bruising in the foot will typically be more severe if it is due to a break rather than a sprain.

However, sprains can still cause distress and impair a person’s movement. A doctor will order imaging tests to accurately diagnose whether a person’s injury is a break or a sprain.

Learn more about the differences between sprains and strains here.

A broken foot or toe may take 4–6 weeks to heal fully. However, in some cases, healing time can be as long as 10–12 weeks.

Recovering individuals should follow the RICE method and any specific instructions from their doctor. A person may also require follow-up X-rays or other scans to ensure proper healing and alignment.

Returning to physical activity too soon can risk poor healing, re-injury, or a complete fracture. A person should contact a doctor if the pain or swelling returns.

Treatment of a broken foot depends on the type, location, and severity of the fracture.

In most cases, the fracture will heal with rest and limited weight-bearing. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen or naproxen, can help to reduce pain and swelling.

If a bone is out of place, the doctor may need to manipulate it physically back into the correct alignment. The medical term for this is fracture reduction. A medical professional will typically administer a local anesthetic before starting a reduction procedure. They will also treat any open wounds.

If an injury causes bone deformation or instability, a surgeon may insert metal pins, plates, or screws into the foot to hold bones in place until they heal. The term for this is internal fixation.

A doctor may fit a cast or provide a person with a protective boot to protect the foot while it heals. These devices protect and immobilize the injured foot while helping to keep weight off it. A person may also require crutches to assist in walking.

People should always seek medical attention if they suspect they have broken a bone in their foot or big toe.

However, immediately following an injury, they may benefit from following the RICE principle while seeking or waiting for help. The acronym stands for:

  • Rest: A person who suspects they have broken a bone should keep pressure off the injured foot or limit weight bearing until it gets better, or a doctor can examine it. Unnecessary walking could worsen the injury.
  • Ice: Immediately apply ice to the injury to reduce pain and swelling. A person may use icepacks for up to 20 minutes several times a day for the first 48 hours. They should not apply ice packs directly to the skin.
  • Compression: A person should wrap the foot in a soft dressing or bandage. However, they must ensure the bandage is not too tight, as this may stop the blood from circulating.
  • Elevation: Elevate the foot, as much as possible, with pillows. Ideally, a person will raise the foot above the level of the heart. This also helps with pain and swelling.

Following breaks in smaller toes, a person can tape a broken toe to an adjacent, uninjured toe for support. Some people refer to this as ‘buddy taping.’ This involves placing a piece of cotton wool or gauze between the two toes, then securing them together with surgical tape.

A person may be able to relieve immediate pains by taking over-the-counter pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If walking on a broken foot or toe becomes necessary, the individual should wear a wide, sturdy shoe that does not pressure the injured area.

A person can use the RICE principle to treat a strain or sprain in the foot or ankle.

Although the foot can typically withstand considerable force, breaking bones in the foot or toes is common.

A broken foot can result from simply stumbling, tripping, or kicking something. Twisting the foot or ankle awkwardly by falling or being hit by a heavy object can also break a bone.

Stress fractures are a particular risk in athletes or anyone who partakes in high-impact sports, such as football, basketball, running, or dancing.

These are tiny, sometimes microscopic, cracks that can enlarge over time. They tend to be caused by repetitive activities or sudden increases in exercise intensity.

To diagnose a broken foot, a doctor will ask questions about the injury and feel and manipulate the affected foot. They may order an X-ray to confirm or further assess a possible break.

A suspected stress fracture may require an MRI or ultrasound, as these tiny fractures can be difficult to detect on an X-ray.

To reduce the risk of injuring the feet, people should keep the floors at home and in the workplace free of clutter. Those working on construction sites or in other hazardous environments should wear professional safety boots.

When partaking in sports or exercise, the following advice can help prevent stress fractures and other foot injuries:

  • use shoes and equipment appropriate to the activity
  • stretch, warm up, and start the activity slowly
  • gradually increase speed, time, distance, or intensity of a new activity or after a break
  • use stretches and exercises to build up the calf muscles
  • alternate with low-impact activities, such as swimming and cycling
  • eat foods rich in calcium and vitamin D to build up bone strength

The symptoms of a broken foot are often similar to those of a strain or sprain. However, swelling, pain, and visual deformity will typically be greater following a bone break.

A person may break a bone in their foot through an impact injury or overuse. Breaks can vary from small cracks or splinters to open fractures where a portion of bone breaks through the skin.

Anyone who suspects they have broken a bone in their foot should contact a doctor immediately.

A person may be able to treat breaks in smaller toes at home with buddy taping and the RICE principle.

Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about a broken foot.

What happens if you don’t treat a broken foot?

Bones may heal out of natural alignment if a person does not seek medical treatment. This can lead to permanent bone deformity and mobility problems. If a person has an open fracture and does not seek treatment, they may also be at risk of developing an infection in the wound.

Does a broken foot always bruise?

A person may break a bone within their foot without experiencing any visible bruising. Bruises are the result of blood pooling under the skin. Overuse or injury can lead a bone to break without disturbing blood vessels.