Anyone who has ever broken a toe knows how much pain and inconvenience such a “little” injury can cause. But how do you know it’s broken and not just bruised and sore from stubbing it hard? If it’s indeed broken, will surgery be needed? Will a cast be necessary? In the majority of cases referred to me, most don’t require any treatment beyond rest, ice, compression, and elevation (R.I.C.E.). Notice I said “most cases.” Treatment for a toe fracture depends on the location of the injury and type of fracture.
Signs of a Broken Toe
Obviously, if your toe is at a strange angle or the bone is sticking through the skin – it’s broken. But in the case of less visible breaks, the only way to tell for sure is with an X-ray or other imaging scan.
There are some little telltale signs that point to a possible fracture:
- The toe is swollen.
- Tenderness at the fracture site.
- Bruising or discoloration.
- Too painful to walk on.
- Toe appears deformed because the bone is out of place.
Most broken toes can be treated symptomatically. For several days it may be painful to put weight on your injured toe. As your pain eases, however, you can begin to apply weight as you are comfortable. During this time, it may be helpful to wear a wider-than-normal shoe.
"Buddy taping" your broken toe to an adjacent toe can also sometimes help relieve pain and keep the injured toe immobilized.
If the bone is out of place and your toe appears deformed, it may be necessary for your doctor to manipulate or "reduce" the fracture and straighten the toe. This procedure is most often done in the doctor's office under local anesthesia to numb your foot.
Or, your doctor might prescribe a post-surgical shoe that has a stiff bottom and a soft top that closes with strips of fabric fastener. This can prevent your toe from flexing and provide more room to accommodate the swelling.
If the fragments of your broken toe won't stay together, you may need a walking cast. In severe cases, a surgeon may need to use pins, plates, or screws to maintain proper position of your bones during healing.
It can take from four to eight weeks for a broken toe to heal. Your doctor will let you know when it’s safe to resume activities and return to sports. Be aware that returning to activities too soon can put you at risk for re-injury.
Don’t Skip Your Doctor
Even though most broken toes don’t require treatment beyond R.I.C.E. or buddy taping, you should still be examined by a doctor. A broken toes that’s left untreated can potentially cause:
- Pain for months or even years after the injury.
- Arthritis if the break is near a joint in the toe and isn’t correctly aligned before it heals.
- Permanent deformity.
- Infection, possibly even life-threatening.
Proper medical care ensures that a minor break now does not lead to a significant issue later.
Dr. Alade is a board-certified Orthopedic Surgeon at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus and Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. His expertise is in major foot and ankle surgery, including reconstruction and repair of trauma, arthritis, bunions, and other foot deformities. His experience also includes serious foot problems caused by diabetes and peripheral vascular disease.