There are 26 bones in the human foot, and 14 of these are in the toes. Toes play a critical role in balance and movement. Having a swollen toe can affect a person's ability to balance and walk.
Health professionals have identified several causes of swollen toes. Examples include injuries, infections, and various forms of arthritis. Each cause has its own management and treatment options.
Keep reading to learn about the causes of swollen toes and their associated symptoms. We also outline the potential treatment options associated with each cause.
The sections that follow discuss some specific causes of toe swelling, and the other symptoms a person might experience.
Some common injuries that can cause a swollen toe include:
- sports injuries
- stubbing the toe
- dropping something heavy on the toe
Aside from swelling, people who injure their toe may also experience:
- warmth in the area
- limited movement
- bruising or discoloration
Some injuries involve a break in one or more bones within the toe. If the toe is broken, bruising may appear the day after the injury.
A stress fracture is a tiny hairline break in a bone. These tend to occur with repetitive activities such as running. The symptoms of a stress fracture are similar to those of a bone break, but they are usually less severe. Pain typically occurs during activity and stops during rest. The toe may swell but does not usually bruise.
OA occurs due to general wear and tear of the joints. RA is an autoimmune condition in which the body's own immune system attacks the joints and other tissues. Both types of arthritis may affect the joints within the toes.
Arthritis in the toes may result in pain, stiffness, and deformities in the joints. These deformities may appear as swellings.
Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is a type of arthritis that affects some people with psoriasis. Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes red plaques to develop on the skin. These are particularly common on the scalp and back, as well as around the joints.
PsA can also affect the hips, knees, and spine.
Gout is another type of arthritis. This type causes crystals to form within and around the joints, resulting in inflammation and pain.
Gout most commonly occurs in the first metatarsophalangeal joint at the base of the big toe, but it can also occur in other joints, including the ankle and knee.
People with gout may experience intense joint pain that appears suddenly. Symptoms typically reach their maximum intensity within 24 hours of a flare-up. The swollen toe may appear red and feel warm to the touch.
Hallux rigidus is another type of arthritis that affects the metatarsophalangeal joint at the base of the big toe. Inflammation in this joint can cause pain and stiffness in the toe, which may also cause difficulty walking.
Hallux rigidus can also cause a bump to develop on the top of the foot. This bump may appear similar to a bunion or a callus.
Other symptoms of hallux rigidus include:
- swelling around the joint
- stiffness in the big toe, characterized by an inability to bend it up or down
- pain in the joint during activity, especially when pushing off on the toes while walking
Left untreated, an ingrown toenail can cause severe pain and discomfort. Some may require surgery.
Skin and soft tissue infections
Skin infections and soft tissue infections that affect the foot can cause the toes to swell. There are many potential causes of such infections. Examples include:
- ingrown toenails
- insect bites and stings
- open wounds
A bunion is a bump that develops on the joint at the base of the big toe. This occurs as a result of changes to the bones within the foot. These changes cause the big toe to lean in toward the second toe, instead of pointing straight ahead.
With time, the bones gradually drift further out of alignment, causing the bunion to grow.
Bunions can cause the following symptoms:
- pain or soreness at the site of the bump
The treatment options and management strategies for a swollen toe depend on its underlying cause.
The sections below list some remedies to try depending on the cause of the swollen toe.
People with a sprained or broken toe should follow the RICE procedure. This acronym stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Resting the foot in an elevated position and applying ice and compression can help reduce inflammation. Doctors may also prescribe analgesics to relieve pain.
Some broken bones may require surgery, especially if they are severely displaced as a result of the injury. One common treatment for broken toes is "buddy taping," or taping the broken toe to the toe next to it to stabilize it, and wearing a hard soled shoe or boot for several weeks to allow healing.
RA and PsA are autoimmune conditions. As a result, they share several of the same treatment options.
Meanwhile, a doctor may recommend the following treatments for OA:
People with OA may also benefit from:
There are many drugs available to help manage PsA (and RA). Some examples include:
- oral glucocorticoids
- local glucocorticoid injections
- biologics such as etanercept or infliximab
- Janus kinase inhibitors
Some people may also benefit from:
- trying physical therapy
- trying occupational therapy
- trying massage therapy
- losing weight
- gently exercising
- quitting smoking
Doctors tend to treat gout with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as NSAIDS, glucocorticoids, or colchicine. To reduce the severity and duration of the flare-up, they should start treatment within 24 hours of the onset of swelling.
Some people experience chronic gout as a result of high uric acid, or urate, levels in the blood. Taking the following urate lowering drugs can help prevent gout flare-ups:
- xanthine oxidase inhibitors (such as allopurinol or febuxostat)
- uricosuric (such as probenecid or lesinurad)
- interleukin-1 (such as anakinra or canakinumab)
In severe cases, a person may need surgery to eliminate or reduce the pain of hallux rigidus.
For less severe cases, however, a doctor or podiatrist may recommend:
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs
- receiving glucocorticoid injections
- wearing shoes with a wide toe box
- wearing orthotic devices
- trying physical therapy
Doctors and podiatrists must determine the stage of the ingrown toenail before starting treatment. This is because severely ingrown toenails may require procedures to remove the toenail, or even surgery.
General methods for managing ingrown toenails include:
- changing the shoes to improve comfort
- soaking the affected foot in warm, soapy water
- applying topical antibiotics
- applying topical steroids
Skin and soft tissue infections
Skin and soft tissue infections may require antibiotic treatment. The type of antibiotic a doctor prescribes depends on the cause and severity of the infection, as well as the type of bacteria present. They may choose topical, oral, or injectable antibiotics.
People who have an infection in their toe should monitor it carefully. If the swelling worsens, a change of antibiotics may be necessary. However, people should not stop taking a course of antibiotics unless their doctor instructs them to do so.
Bunions do not always require treatment. However, if it is painful, a doctor may recommend trying glucocorticoid injections to alleviate pain and swelling.
Other treatment and management options include:
- taking OTC NSAIDs
- applying ice
- changing shoes
- wearing orthotic devices
- putting pads on the bump
- avoiding activities that cause pain
- undergoing surgery
People should see a doctor if they think they have an infection or a form of arthritis. These conditions require medication.
Those who develop bunions should consult a podiatrist. Early treatment can help prevent further damage to the joint.
People should not attempt to remove ingrown toenails themselves. Doing so can make the condition worse and could cause an infection.
Individuals who injure their toe should see a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- a popping or breaking sound in the bone at the time of the injury
- a crooked or abnormal-looking toe following the injury
- swelling or bruising in the toe the day after the injury
A swollen toe can occur for many different reasons, including injuries, infections, and conditions such as arthritis.
Some causes of a swollen toe require a visit to the doctor. In general, people should see a doctor if the swelling persists or is accompanied by pain or other worrying symptoms.
A doctor will diagnose the issue and outline the potential treatment options. Depending on the cause, treatment options may include medications, surgery, or lifestyle changes to help manage the pain and discomfort.