Broken toe

Overview

A broken toe is a common injury that's most often caused by dropping something on a foot or stubbing a toe.

Usually, treating a broken toe involves taping it to the next toe. But if the fracture is severe — especially if it's in the big toe — proper healing might require a cast or even surgery to heal well.

Most broken toes heal well, usually within 4 to 6 weeks. Sometimes, however, a broken toe can get infected. Also, the break might increase the risk of getting osteoarthritis in that toe in the future.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of a broken toe include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Change in skin color from bruising or bleeding under the skin

When to see a doctor

Consult a health care provider if the pain, swelling and change in skin color last for more than a few days or if the injury affects walking or wearing shoes.

Causes

Dropping something heavy on a foot and stubbing the toe against something hard are the most common causes of a broken toe.

Complications

Complications may include:

  • Infection. If the skin is cut near the injured toe, the risk of getting an infection in the bone increases.
  • Osteoarthritis. This wear-and-tear type of arthritis is more likely to occur when the break affects one of the toe joints.

Diagnosis

During the physical exam, health care providers typically check for tender areas in the toe. The provider also will check the skin around the injury to make sure it's not cut and that the toe is still getting blood flow and nerve signals.

X-rays of the foot can confirm a broken toe.

Treatment

Medications

You can usually manage pain from a broken toe with medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) that you can get without a prescription. Severe pain might require prescription painkillers.

Reduction

If the broken pieces of the bone don't fit snugly together, a care provider might need to move the pieces back into place. This is known as reduction. It's usually done without cutting the skin. Ice or a shot of anesthetic numbs the toe.

Keeping the toe from moving

To heal, a broken bone must not move so that its ends can knit back together. Examples include:

  • Buddy taping. For a simple fracture in any of the smaller toes, taping the injured toe to one next to it might be all that's needed. The uninjured toe acts like a splint. Putting gauze or felt between the toes before taping can prevent skin soreness.
  • Wearing a stiff-bottomed shoe. A care provider might prescribe a post-surgical shoe that has a stiff bottom and a soft top that closes with strips of fabric. This can prevent the toe from moving and provide more room for swelling.
  • Casting. If the pieces of the broken toe won't stay snugly together, a walking cast might help.

Surgery

In some cases, a surgeon may need to use pins, plates or screws to keep the bones in place during healing.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Raising the foot and using ice can help reduce swelling and pain. Prop your foot up when possible so that your injury is higher than your heart. If you use ice, wrap it in a towel so that it doesn't touch your skin. Use it for about 15 minutes at a time, taking a break of at least 20 minutes before icing again.

Preparing for an appointment

Your health care provider might refer you to a specialist in orthopedic surgery.

What you can do

You may want to write a list that includes:

  • Details about your symptoms
  • How the injury occurred
  • Information about other medical problems you've had
  • All the medications and dietary supplements you take, including doses
  • Questions you want to ask the doctor

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:

  • Were you barefoot at the time of the injury?
  • Exactly where does it hurt?
  • Is more than one toe involved?
  • Does your injury feel better or worse when you move your foot certain ways?

Last Updated Nov 2, 2022


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