Broken Toe 101 – Symptoms & Treatments | Advanced Foot & Ankle

Broken Toe 101 – Symptoms & Treatments | Advanced Foot & Ankle

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A broken toe, also known as a toe fracture, is a very common injury, especially in athletes and those with active lifestyles. Out of the five toes (also known as digits of the feet) the pinky toe is the most commonly broken toe with the fracture often occurring at the base of the toe.

Your toes make up a portion of your foot referred to as the forefoot. Four of your toes are comprised of 3 bones called phalanges, and two joints. The big toe, however, is made up of only two bones and one joint.

The three smaller bones, or phalanges, of the toes are the:

  • Proximal – bone closest to the foot
  • Middle
  • Distal – the end of the toe

The big toe only has the proximal and distal phalanx bones.

Types of toe fractures


There are several ways to categorize your toe fractures:

  • Stress fracture – caused by repetitive activity / overuse
  • Non-displaced – bones are cracked but have not broken apart
  • Displaced – ends of the broken toe have separated completely or partially from the rest of the bone
  • Open fractures – skin is broken and the bone is protruding
  • Closed fracture – skin is not broken and the bone is contained
  • Avulsion fracture – small chip fracture most commonly caused by tendon pulling off bone

With the numerous small bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your toes it can be hard to identify what type of injury you are suffering from. That is why it’s so important to see one of our podiatrists as soon as possible, so we can quickly identify your injury and prevent it from worsening.

What Causes a Broken Toe

Some of the most common causes of broken toes include:

  • Overuse
  • Stubbing or banging your toe against something hard
  • Rolling your toe
  • Dropping a hard and/or heavy object on your toe
  • Wearing poor footwear
  • Osteoporosis

How to Tell if a Toe is Broken: Symptoms & Identification

Broken toes are some of the most common breaks of the foot and are frequently marked by symptoms like:

  • Severe bruising
  • Intense & throbbing pain
  • Swelling
  • Deformity
  • Difficulty walking
  • Toenail discoloration
  • Crooked & misshapen appearance of the toe

Big Toe

Broken toes often occur in athletes and those maintaining active lifestyles; broken big toes (or “great toes”) are particularly common for these individuals. These breaks are often referred to as “turf toe.” Turf toe is caused by excessive and repetitive pushing off of the big toe when making explosive movements (e.g. running & jumping), and can vary from a sprain to a broken bone with ligament damage. If you’re experiencing severe pain from your big toe after athletic or strenuous activity you may need to be examined for a break.

Broken Toe Myths & Misconceptions

Although broken toes are well known, the treatment of them seems to be clouded with many unknowns and falsehoods. Here are the common responses you should be skeptical of next time someone tries to give you “advice” for your broken toe:

Should I see a doctor for a broken toe?

“There’s nothing a doctor can do for a broken toe.” – False. This is not only untrue, but can be harmful. If a fractured toe is not treated promptly and correctly, serious complications may develop!

Can you move a broken toe?

“If you can still move it then it’s not broken.” – False. This is another harmful old wives’ tale. Although it may be possible to move and walk on your broken toe, you should avoid doing so as this can lead to even greater damage and prolonged healing time.

Should you soak a broken toe?

“Any toe injury should be soaked in hot water or with Epsom salts immediately!” – False. If you suspect your toe (or any bone) is broken, hot water or any heat applied to the area can make it worse! Heat causes an increase in blood flow, which leads to more swelling and more pain. Instead, apply an ice pack for a maximum of 15-20 minutes to help numb your toe and decrease swelling. However, it’s important to not overdo it as too much ice may cause frostbite.

What to Do for a Broken Toe: Care & Treatment

Broken toes don’t usually require x-rays as both broken and badly bruised/injured toes are often treated with the same methods.

Broken and injured toes are often treated through:

  • Ice
  • Rest
  • Splinting, known as “buddy taping,” where the broken toe is taped alongside a neighboring healthy toe
  • Casting, if the toe has become dislocated
  • Wearing podiatrist-provided stiff-soled shoes to support the fracture
  • Pain & anti-inflammatory medication

Fractures of the big, or great, toe are often more severe than breaks to the others. If the joint is disrupted or the bones have become dislocated, the toe may require surgery.

Improper or Delayed Treatment

If your toe fracture is not properly handled, or treatment is delayed you may experience a wide range of consequences and side effects, including:

  • Motion limiting deformity & long-term dysfunction
  • Development of arthritis around the fracture
  • Non-healing & worsening of the fracture
  • Development of chronic pain
  • Compound fractures & infection
  • Difficulty wearing shoes

Early examination and treatment of any fracture is essential for proper healing. At Advanced Foot & Ankle our podiatrists have extensive training and experience in the non-surgical and surgical treatments of any foot, ankle, or toe fracture.

Once we identify a fracture, we develop a treatment specifically for your injury striving to correct your injury non-surgically and only suggesting surgery when it’s absolutely necessary.

If you’re experiencing any foot, toe or ankle pain contact us today, and schedule an appointment at one of our conveniently located Middle Tennessee locations.