When you stub your toe, it’s hard to say what comes first -- the pain or the swearing. And if you break your toe, you won’t believe how much such a small bone can hurt.
The good news is that a broken toe doesn’t usually need much medical care. In fact, it can be tough to tell whether you broke it or just hurt it badly, and the treatment’s often the same.
Each of your toes has three bones, except for the big toe, which has two. When you break your toe, you break one of these bones. It often happens when you stub it really hard or drop something on it.
What Are the Symptoms?
When you break a toe, you’ll likely have:
- Pain and tenderness in your toe
- Pain when you walk or put weight on your foot
- Redness or bruising
Most of the time, your toe will heal in about 4 to 6 weeks. But, it could take as long as 8 weeks for more serious breaks.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
If you think you broke your toe, it’s best to have your doctor look at it. Even though you can often treat it yourself, a broken toe can sometimes lead to more serious problems, like infection, arthritis, or long-term foot pain.
Call your doctor if you have one these more serious breaks, which do require treatment:
- Big toe injury
- Broken bone sticking out of your skin or causing an open wound (can lead to an infection in your bone)
- Toe is bent or crooked
For a less serious break, even if you put it off at first, call your doctor if you have:
- An illness that impacts the nerves or blood flow in your feet, like diabetes
- Fever or chills
- Intense pain under your toenail (possibly a blood buildup under the nail)
- Numbness, tingling, or coldness in your toe
- Pain that gets worse or doesn’t get better with over-the-counter pain medicine
- Blue or gray skin on your toe
- Swelling, bruising, or redness that doesn’t improve after a few days
How Is It Diagnosed?
First, your doctor will ask you what happened and what symptoms you’re having. He’ll check for tenderness and broken skin around your toe. He’ll also test your nerves and blood flow. Then, if your doctor thinks it’s a break, you’ll likely get an X-ray.
Treatment depends on where and how bad the break is. In most cases you’ll be sent home with directions for self-care. You may also get a prescription for pain medicine.
It helps you heal if you can keep your toe from bending too much. Your doctor might suggest buddy taping. That’s where you tape your broken toe to the toe next to it. First, you first put cotton or gauze between your toes so the skin doesn’t rub and get raw. Then, you wrap them with medical tape.
You doctor may also give you a stiff-bottomed shoe with a cloth top. This keeps your toe from bending too much and allows room for swelling.
More Severe Breaks
If you broke your toe all the way through and the bone moved, your doctor may need to set it back in place. First, you’ll get an injection to numb your toe. Then your doctor moves the bones back together with his hands. There’s no surgery involved. You may get a cast if the bone pieces don’t stay in place.
If you have blood trapped under your toenail, your doctor will try to drain it, but may have to remove the nail completely.
For very severe breaks, you may need surgery to put in pins or screws that hold the bones in place.
For the first few days or weeks after you break your toe, you can:
- Keep your foot raised while sitting or lying down (above your heart is best) to keep the swelling and pain down.
- Put ice on your toe for 20 minutes every hour while you’re awake. That’s for the first 24 hours. After that, you can ice it 2 or 3 times a day. Don’t put ice right on your skin. Wrap it in a towel instead.
- Rest. Ease up on activity that causes pain.
- Take pain medicine with ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen, if you need it.
- Wear shoes with stiff soles.
As you heal, it’s best to avoid high heels or any shoes that squeeze your toes.
When you can wear shoes and walk without pain, you can ease back into your normal activities. You can expect some stiffness or soreness when you first get going again, but that will fade as you get back to normal.