What Is Hallux Limitus?

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 01, 2023
4 min read

When you’re experiencing hallux limitus, you’ll notice that the joint connecting to your big toe on one or both feet is uncomfortable and stiff, and you may have trouble walking. Hallux limitus is a condition in which your hallux, the joint connecting your big toe to your foot, is inflamed, sore, and stiff. 

Hallux limitus can advance into the condition hallux rigidus, in which the joint can’t move at all and walking becomes painful or impossible. However, most people can prevent that from happening with some basic treatment and careful management. 

There are many things that can cause you to develop hallux limitus in one or both feet. Some are unavoidable, but other causes can be avoided. The most common causes of hallux limitus include:

  • Atypical anatomy of the feet. Some people have unusual foot anatomy that causes them to walk in a way that stresses their hallux joints. This can lead to hallux limitus over time. 
  • Arthritis. If you have conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, you may change how you walk and start putting stress on your big toe, causing joint strain. 
  • ‌Injuries. If you’ve ever stubbed, sprained, or broken your big toe, you may have damaged the joint. That can cause hallux limitus to appear over time. 
  • Overuse. Activities that put a lot of pressure on your toes, like running or high-impact sports, can result in damage to your foot joints. 
  • Poorly fitting footwear. High heels, shoes that are too small, and shoes with pointed toes can all put extra pressure on your toes and cause damage to those joints. 

Hallux limitus can be painful, especially at the top of your toe joint. The pain will get worse with regular walking or pressure on the joint. Other symptoms include:

  • Bunions, bony lumps on the top of your big toe joint
  • Numbness or tingling in your foot from pressure on the nerves
  • Calluses on the bottom of the joint from pressure 
  • Bone spurs from the damaged joint trying to repair itself 

If hallux limitus goes untreated, it can also progress into hallux rigidus, in which the joint is completely unable to move and feels very painful when you're walking. In this case, you might need to get surgery to relieve the pain and pressure on your toe. 

If you think that you’re developing hallux limitus, you can do a couple things to reduce your pain and heal your joint. 

Wear shoes that fit. Shoes that don’t fit right can cause hallux limitus to develop, so getting shoes that allow your big toe to move are important for solving this problem. Avoid wearing shoes that pinch your toes, and make sure that you don’t use heels higher than an inch. Shoes that are flat and fit well allow your big toe to move naturally and heal from the irritation. 

Avoid overuse. Just as with any other injury, your foot needs to rest to heal from hallux limitus. Make sure to rest your feet frequently and avoid activities like running or high-impact sports until your joint has recovered.

Use orthotic inserts. There are a wide variety of orthotic inserts or insoles you can use to help support your feet. Soft gel pads can help reduce the pressure on your joint, while orthotics can help correct the way you walk. 

Take anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or aspirin. Inflammation is one of the reasons that hallux limitus is so uncomfortable. Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce the symptoms of hallux limitus while you wait for the condition to heal. 

Ice the joint. If you’re experiencing acute pain, you can ice your foot two to three times a day to reduce swelling. Make sure to only ice your foot for fifteen minutes at a time to avoid cold burns.

Talk to your doctor about corticosteroid injections. If resting your foot and wearing insoles and better-fitting shoes doesn’t help your symptoms, you can talk to your doctor about corticosteroid shots. These injections reduce swelling in the area and can help the joint heal.

If you notice consistent discomfort in your feet, you should discuss it with your doctor. They will be able to examine the joint and determine whether you have hallux limitus or hallux rigidus and what treatment you should consider. It’s important to start treating hallux limitus early to improve your chances of preventing further damage and allow healing.