How do you know when a stubbed toe is serious?
The pain of a stubbed toe usually subsides after a few minutes. In some cases, however, the impact could break the toe or the toenail, causing intense pain that may get worse over hours or days.
In most cases, people can treat the injury at home and medication can help with the pain.
This article looks at the symptoms of a stubbed toe, how to tell if a toe is broken or sprained, some treatments, and a range of home remedies.
What is a stubbed toe?
The impact of stubbing a toe might break the toe or toenail.
A stubbed toe is the name for any injury that happens when a person suddenly hits or jams their toe.
Some common causes include accidentally kicking the toe into a wall or doorframe, tripping over a toy on the floor, or catching the toe on a gate or other object.
The symptoms of a stubbed toe are similar at first, regardless of whether the injury is serious or minor. They include:
- intense pain that can be either dull or sharp
- pain that radiates elsewhere in the foot or ankle
- pain when putting weight on the injured area
Stubbed toes can hurt a lot, even when the injury is not serious. This is because there are many nerves in the toe, including two nerves on either side.
There is little fat to cushion the toes, which can intensify the pain and increase the risk of injuries such as bone bruises and fractures.
Is it stubbed, bruised, broken, or sprained?
It can be difficult to self-diagnose a stubbed toe. Strains, sprains, bone contusions, and broken toes can all feel very similar.
If symptoms do not improve after a few minutes, it may mean that the toe is broken.
Stubbing the toe can result in several different injuries:
Broken or fractured toe
A broken toe or a toe fracture is a break in one of the 14 toe bones. It can be very painful and make it difficult to walk.
Although many fractures heal on their own, a doctor may need to surgically repair a severe fracture.
Symptoms of a broken toe include:
- swelling around the toe and sometimes into the foot
- discoloration, such as black or blue bruising, around the toe
- a change in the shape of the toe, if a bone is out of place
- trouble moving the toe
- significant pain when walking or putting weight on the toe
- pain that gets worse over several hours
- a loss of feeling in the toe or foot
- a visible bone poking into the skin, which can occur after trauma, such as closing the toe in a heavy door
The symptoms of a bone bruise, strain, and sprain are similar to those of a broken toe.
Sprains and strains
A sprain is an injury to the ligaments that connect the bones of the toe. A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon.
Mild strains and sprains may just stretch a ligament, muscle, or tendon. However, more severe injuries can tear the tissue.
A bone bruise is a deep bruise that injures blood vessels in or around the bone.
They can be intensely painful, but they will usually heal within a couple of months. A bone bruise does not show up on an X-ray.
A person with a toenail injury may find it difficult to walk for several weeks.
Injuries to the toenails can be very painful, especially if the toenail breaks deep in the nail plate. If the injury is serious enough to bleed, it may be painful to walk for several weeks.
Sometimes the toenail falls off, either right after stubbing the toe or weeks later.
People may notice the following injuries after stubbing their toe:
- a cracked or broken nail
- bleeding along the edge of, or underneath, the toenail
- swelling or pain under the toenail
- pus or fluid under the toenail
A subungual hematoma is a spot of blood under the toenail.
Severe hematomas can cause large blood spots and intense, painful pressure. Hematomas, regardless of size, often cause the toenail to fall off.
It can take 6–9 months for a subungual hematoma to disappear.
If the impact from stubbing a toe causes broken skin or nails, bacteria can enter the skin to cause an infection.
If the skin is broken, it is important to keep the toe clean and covered and to see a doctor for symptoms of an infection. People with diabetes or a weakened immune system are more vulnerable to toe and foot infections.
Skin infections along the nail are called paronychia.
Symptoms of an infected toe include:
- redness and swelling
- tenderness or pain
- fluid or pus collecting under the skin around the nail
- discoloration or thickening of the nail
- pain or itching around the toenail, even many months after the injury
How to relieve pain
After stubbing the toe, massaging or shaking the foot can distract from the pain and increase blood flow.
If the injury is more serious, a number of strategies can help with the pain:
- Try gently taping a broken toe to a nearby toe.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs help reduce pain and inflammation.
- Try rest, ice, compression, and elevation (the RICE method). Avoid putting weight on the injury and apply an ice pack for 10–20 minutes at a time. Wrap or bandage the area to reduce swelling and elevate the foot above the heart when lying or sitting.
- Soak an injured toenail in warm water or Epsom salts.
- Apply a numbing cream or spray to an injured toenail.
If the injury is severe, a doctor might recommend surgery or physical therapy.
When to see a doctor
If the toe is very swollen or the pain is severe, a person should seek medical advice.
See a doctor if:
- the toe is very swollen
- the pain is severe and does not go away after several hours
- it is difficult to walk or to put weight on the foot
- the toenail falls off or the area around it is very swollen
- there are signs of infection around the toenail, such as itching, redness, and pus
Go to the emergency room if:
- the bone is visible
- the toe looks crooked or misshapen
- a broken toenail does not stop bleeding after several minutes
- the pain is unbearable
- the toe is numb, as this may indicate a nerve injury
A stubbed toe can be extremely painful. Massaging or shaking the area sometimes helps. When the pain does not go away, it may mean that there is a more serious injury.
Although many toe injuries heal on their own, prompt medical care can speed healing and help with the pain.