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 see 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 and treatment, recovery, and prevention tips.
Fast facts on a broken foot:
- The human foot is made up of around 26 bones.
- The most common symptoms of a broken foot are pain, swelling, and bruising.
- A broken foot or toe may take 1 to 3 months to heal fully.
A broken bone can be a small crack or a complete break that results in two or more pieces. Severe breaks can tear or pierce the skin and leave a gaping wound. These are known as open fractures.
Pain and swelling in a person's foot can also result from a strain or sprain. It can be useful if they compare their two feet to get an indication of the seriousness of an injury.
Deformity of a toe or an area of the foot, such as an unusual bulge, is a strong indication of a break.
If there is no displacement of the bone, it can be difficult to tell whether a break has occurred. Also, minor cracks or breaks may not result in much pain.
Other indications of a broken bone include:
- hearing or feeling a snap or grinding noise when an injury happens
- broken skin or an open wound
- pain or difficulty moving the foot
- pain or trouble walking or bearing weight on the foot
- tenderness or pain from touching the injury
- feeling faint, dizzy, or sick, following the injury
A person must seek medical assistance, urgently, if a broken foot or big toe is suspected. They should not attempt to drive. Broken smaller toes are less serious and can usually be treated at home.
However, someone should see a doctor for any injury that prevents walking or if the pain and swelling persist or get worse.
Immediate help should be sought 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 has been crushed
Although the foot can normally withstand a considerable amount of force, broken bones in people's feet is a common occurrence. They are also more likely to occur in children than adults because of the differences in bone structure.
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 by sudden increases in exercise intensity.
A person should follow the RICE principle when dealing with a suspected broken foot or toe. The acronym stands for:
- Rest: Stay off the injured foot or limit weight bearing until it gets better or can be seen by a doctor. Unnecessary walking could worsen the injury.
- Ice: Immediately apply ice to the injury to reduce pain and swelling. Try wrapping ice or a bag of frozen peas in a towel and hold it against the foot. Icepacks can be used for 20 minutes at a time several times a day for the first 48 hours. Do not to apply directly to the skin.
- Compression: Snuggly wrap the foot in a soft dressing or bandage. Ensure the bandage is not too tight, as this may stop the blood circulating.
- Elevation: Elevate the foot, as much as possible, with pillows. Ideally, it should be raised above the level of the heart. This also helps with pain and swelling.
Broken toes can be "buddy" taped to an adjacent, uninjured toe for support. This involves placing a piece of cotton wool or gauze between the two toes, then securing them together with surgical tape. Again, bandaging should not be too tight.
Over-the-counter painkillers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can be taken to help relieve pain.
If walking on a broken foot or toe becomes necessary, the individual should wear a wide, sturdy shoe that does not place pressure on the injured area.
The RICE principle can also be used for treating a strain or sprain in the foot or ankle.
The 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.
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.
Anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen or naproxen, can be used to reduce pain and swelling.
If a bone is out of place, then the doctor may need to manipulate it physically back into the correct alignment. This is called reduction.
A local anesthetic will usually be administered before the start of a reduction procedure. Any wounds will also need to be cleaned and treated.
If the foot is deformed or the bones are unstable, surgery may be required to insert metal pins, plates, or screws. These are used to hold the bones in place until they heal. This method is known as internal fixation.
To protect the foot while it heals, a cast may be fitted, or a protective boot is sometimes provided. These devices protect and immobilize the injured foot while helping to keep weight off it. Crutches may also be provided to assist walking.
A broken foot or toe may take 4 to 6 weeks to fully heal. However, in some cases, it could take longer.
Recovering individuals should follow the RICE principle along with any specific instructions from their doctor. Follow-up X-rays or other scans to ensure proper healing and alignment may be needed.
Returning to physical activity too soon can risk poor healing, re-injury, or a complete fracture. Someone should see a doctor if the pain or swelling returns.
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 and replace them regularly
- 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 can be mistaken for a strain or sprain. A broken foot or big toe should be seen by a doctor immediately. Seek urgent medical attention if the foot is deformed or if there is an open wound.
Broken smaller toes can be treated at home with buddy taping and the RICE principle.