Broken Toe

What is a Broken Toe?

A broken toe is a common fracture that most often occurs when it is badly stubbed or hit with a falling object. The big toe (hallux) is usually the one that ends up injured because it typically sticks out the furthest. All toes are at risk when protective footwear is not worn. The bones are small and vulnerable to injury.

 What are the Symptoms for a Broken Toe?

Wearing shoes and walking can be impossible when any toe is fractured, but the biggest toe can be the most painful of all because it bears the most weight.

Symptoms include

  • Intense pain, especially when applying pressure, standing or walking
  • Blood may collect under the nail-bed and turn dark blue and/or black
  • Toe and foot may become bruised
  • Redness and swelling
  • Misalignment of the toe

A doctor can usually tell through a simple physical exam if a toe is broken, but x-rays may be required, especially if the injury is severe and the toe is crooked. To avoid infection, professional medical care should be sought if the skin was broken. Those with an existing condition that may interfere with healing, especially diabetics and those on oral steroids, should also seek professional medical treatment when suspecting a broken toe.

Broken Toe Causes

Broken toes, like other types of broken bones, are generally caused by trauma to the area. For the toe, this generally means either dropping something on it or stubbing it really hard against something. Broken toes can also sometimes be caused by prolonged repetitive motion, like those found in certain sports or assembly line type jobs. This can put stress on the bone and cause stress or hairline fractures. Generally, stress or hairline fractures only develop in extreme cases or in people whose bones are weakened due to a condition such as osteoporosis. Another common cause of stress fractures is not conditioning the area properly when starting a new activity. If there is too much intensity applied too quickly, the bones and muscles don’t have time to adjust and develop and that can lead to fracturing.

How is a Broken Toe Treated?

Contrary to popular belief, a broken toe can be treated. Treatment depends on the severity of the injury, but in most cases, non-surgical methods are used.

Treatment includes

  • Raising the broken toe above heart level to reduce swelling and pain
  • Application of ice for up to 20 minutes every hour or two for up to two days after injury
  • Oral pain reliever according to pain severity
  • Antibiotics to prevent infection
  • Releasing collected blood through a small hole in the nail to lessen pressure and pain
  • Taping the broken toe to uninjured toes (immobilization) for several weeks
  • Realigning the broken toe
  • Surgery and hardware such as pins and screws for severe breaks
  • A medical shoe or walking cast
  • Avoidance of weight-bearing activities

It can take between four and six weeks for a broken toe to heal. After healing, the toe may become stiff, and arthritis may be a problem in the future.

Broken Toes Prevention

Wearing proper footwear is perhaps the best way to prevent broken toes. If playing a sport or doing a physical activity, ensure you’re wearing shoes designed for that sport and they are in good condition. Be sure to replace athletic shoes at the first sign of significant wear. Signs of wear include the cushioning being clearly depressed and the tread wearing out.

In some places, like work sites, there is a significant chance that something heavy will be dropped on your foot. In these situations, it’s important to wear proper steel-toe shoes or boots. The steel in the toe will protect your foot in the event something is dropped on it, even if it’s very heavy.

Another significant cause of broken toes is stubbing them on things. This, of course, is most likely to happen in the dark. If you’re traversing an unfamiliar dark area, be sure to use a light of some sort. If you can, try to slow down a bit so that if you do run into something it’s not going to cause injury. Even in familiar areas, it’s best to install night lights and reduce clutter in areas you frequently walk at night.

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Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
November 21, 2017