What's Wrong With My Toe?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on February 28, 2024
6 min read

Toes are small, but they have a large job. They help you walk and run and keep your balance, too. So if your toe hurts, it can be a big deal.

There are a lot of reasons you may have an aching toe. There's always the chance you stubbed it, of course, or banged it up while playing sports. But there are also problems like hammertoe or arthritis that could be to blame. Watch out for some telltale symptoms and check with your doctor to figure out the cause.

If one or more of your toes are crooked or curled under, you may have hammer, mallet, or claw toe. Your foot has a strange shape because the muscles, tendons, or ligaments that surround your toe aren't balanced. This causes the toes to bend in an odd position.

Your toe may hurt. It's also common to develop a corn or callus because the joint rubs the inside of your shoe.

Each condition has its own distinctive look:

Hammertoe. The middle joint of your toe bends downwards. This causes your toe to rise up instead of lying flat. It usually occurs in your second, third, and fourth toes.

Mallet toe. Your toe bends down at the joint closest to the nail. Like hammertoe, it often happens in your second, third, and fourth toes.

Claw toe. Like the name suggests, your toes make a claw shape. The joint at the base of the toe bends up, while the two other joints bend down. This causes your toe to curl and dig into the soles of your shoes.

Causes. A main cause is wearing high heels or shoes that don't fit properly. Too-tight shoes can crowd your toes, forcing them into a bent position. After a while, the muscles tighten and shorten. Pretty soon you can't straighten your toe.

You may be more likely to get these problems because of your genes. For instance, your risk goes up if you have a certain foot shape, such as a long second toe. Some diseases, such as arthritis and diabetes, can also lead to trouble.

Treatments. If you can still flex your toe, your doctor may suggest exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles. They include scrunching a towel and picking things up off the floor with your toes.

Wearing roomy shoes can also help. They should be at least a half-inch longer than the big toe. Your doctor may recommend wearing shoe inserts or pads to relieve some of the pressure.

Over time, the bend in your toe may become permanent and rigid. These cases are more serious. You may need surgery.

Does only your big toe ache? You could have a condition called turf toe or the aptly named stiff big toe (hallux rigidus).

Turf toe. It's a sprain to the joint at the bottom of your big toe. This injury causes pain and swelling. You may not be able to move your big toe much. Walking and other weight-bearing activities can make it ache more.

Causes. You can get turf toe if you bend your big toe upward too much. Running or jumping can also jam the big toe. Over time these movements can lead to a sprain. You often get it when you dance or play sports like soccer or football.

Treatments. Your doctor may suggest a home remedy called RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. You'll need to stay off the foot, ice the toe for 20 minutes every 4 hours, wrap it with a medical bandage, and prop up your foot to ease swelling. You may also have to wear a walking boot or stiff-soled shoe to keep from moving the toe.

Stiff big toe. It's a type of arthritis that leads to pain and stiffness in the joint at the base of your big toe. You're more likely to get it if you're between 30 and 60.

Causes. Athletes or workers who are on their feet a lot may overuse the big toe. That puts stress on the joint. An injury or disease, such as osteoarthritis, can also lead to the condition. Your genes may also be partly to blame.

Treatments. In the early stages, you can treat stiff big toe with anti-inflammatory medicine and hot or cold packs to relieve the pain. Steroid shots also ease the swelling.

Your doctor may suggest you wear wide shoes with thick, curved soles. If the pain doesn't go away, you may need surgery.

Do you have a tingling pain in your toes or the ball of your foot? Nerve damage like Morton's neuroma could be the cause.

Besides tingling or numbness in your toes, you may also get a feeling like you're standing on a pebble or have a burning pain in the ball of your foot. It's most common between the third and fourth toes.

Causes. It's not entirely certain what causes Morton's Neuroma, but one of the nerves that leads to your toes becomes irritated, likely involving collapse of the transverse arch that places traction and increased pressure on the interdigital nerve. That's usually caused by pressure that's due to a foot problem like bunions, hammertoes, or too-tight shoes. You can also get it if you play sports where your feet pound the ground, such as running. 

Females are approximately five times more likely than males to develop Morton neuroma. Wearing high-heels has also been linked to Morton's neuroma. You can get relief from symptoms if you switch to shoes with lower heels and more room for your toes.

Treatments. Arch supports that you put in your shoe can bring relief. You can buy them over-the-counter, or your doctor may prescribe one that's custom-made. If the pain keeps up, you may need steroid shots or surgery.

Swollen, painful toes could mean you have a bone injury like a broken toe or a bone bruise.

Broken toe. Your toe may be broken if it swells, throbs, and looks bruised. Also called a fracture, this injury hurts. The pain may get worse when you stand or walk.

Causes. There's often no mystery about why it happens. It could be that you stubbed your toe or dropped something heavy on it.

Sometimes, though, you can get tiny breaks in the bone from the regular impact of activities such as running and basketball. This is called a stress fracture.

Treatments. Most of the time, you won't need surgery. To help your bone heal, the ends will have to be set in place. You may have to wear a cast, brace, or a stiff-bottomed shoe.

If you broke one of your smaller toes, your doctor may tape the broken toe to the one next to it. The healthy toe acts like a splint to injured one. It usually takes 1 or 2 months to heal.

Bone bruise. When the blood vessels in your bone are damaged, they may leak blood and fluid. This is called a bone bruise. It can happen to any bone in the body, including your toes.

The symptoms are similar to a broken toe: swelling, pain, and a change in color -- but it's not as serious. Your doctor will order an X-ray to rule out a broken toe.

Causes. Just like a broken toe, you may get this problem if you bang your toe or stub it or drop something on it. Arthritis can also lead to the injury.

Treatments. You'll recover on your own after about 1 or 2 months. Your doctor will recommend resting and icing your toe. You can also reduce the swelling if you prop up your foot and take anti-inflammatory drugs. You may need to wear a brace. Eating foods with plenty of calcium, vitamin D, and protein can also help you heal.

It's a common cause of pain in the toe. Your big toe is often a place where gout flares up. Besides pain, you may also get redness, swelling, and warmth in the joint.

Causes.Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis. It's caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in your joint.

Treatments. Your doctor may suggest medications that can ease pain and swelling or reduce your levels of uric acid. You may also ice your toe and raise your joint. Drink plenty of liquids (but not alcohol). Try to avoid stress, since that can make your gout worse.