5 Possibilities Why Your Big Toe Hurts
Big toes may be small, but big toe pain sure isn’t! Unfortunately, this digit is pretty good at getting itself into painful trouble, for a variety of reasons.
And that can be a big problem, especially if your pain is keeping you up at night, or making it difficult to stand and walk comfortably.
Despite the fact that we humans can’t, say, grab fruit or cling to tree branches with our feet like chimpanzees, our toes are still pretty important for maintaining balance and providing thrust when walking.
So if your big toe is hurting, it’s important to find out what the problem is and deal with it as quickly as possible. Fortunately, we can help.
Here are some of the most common reasons your big toe might be hurting.
As you might expect based on the name, turf toe is a common injury in “turf sports” like football and soccer. However, it’s possible to develop turf toe from any sport or physical activity—running, dancing, baseball, etc.
Turf toe is really just a sprain of one or more of the ligaments that support the joint at the base of the big toe. Typically, it’s the result of hyperextending your toe past its intended range of motion.
A single traumatic incident—say a hit on the football field that sends your body one way while your toes are stuck in place—is usually to blame. However, turf toe can also develop slowly as the result of chronic overuse.
Common symptoms include swelling, discoloration, pain, and often difficulty flexing the toe.
Sharp, sudden pain in the big toe joint that strikes when you least expect it—sometimes even in the middle of the night—is one of the hallmark symptoms of gout. Often the pain and hypersensitivity can be so intense that even putting a sheet on top of your toe can hurt.
Gout is actually a metabolic condition that stems from the body’s inability to efficiently purge uric acid from the bloodstream. When uric acid levels get too high, they start forming sharp crystals that deposit painfully in the tissues surrounding a joint. (Although any joint can technically be affected, the big toe is by far the most common.)
Foods and drinks that are rich in purines—red and organ meats, shellfish, alcoholic drinks, etc.—should generally be avoided, since purines are broken down into uric acid during digestion, and can trigger gout attacks.
Broken toes are most often caused by stubbing your toe or dropping a heavy object on it—both scenarios that should produce some pretty obvious and immediate pain.
However, the same kind of hyperextension that causes turf toe can also cause a fracture in particularly severe cases. Depending on the seriousness of the fracture, it may be difficult to differentiate from just a very bad sprain.
Dislocated or crooked toes are obvious evidence of a break, but throbbing pain, significant swelling, and bruising are all possible signs of a fracture even if the toe remains properly aligned. If you think there’s even a chance of a fracture, avoid bearing weight on the affected toe and get in to see us as soon as you can.
Bunions do more than hurt your big toe. They actually throw the entire toe out of alignment, so that a giant bump forms on the inside of the foot (it’s actually the displaced metatarsal head) and the toe itself drifts toward (and sometimes crosses over) the other toes.
A bunion is a progressive deformity that will only get worse with time—never better. The toe drifts further out of place, the bump gets bigger, the joint becomes stiffer, and it gets more painful and harder to walk.
Because it develops slowly, many people tend to ignore their bunion until the deformity becomes severe and painful. Don’t be one of them!
Seeking care as early as possible can help you, at the very least, slow the bunion’s progression and minimize the amount of pain that you feel. This can allow you to enjoy your favorite activities longer and delay the need for surgery for as long as possible.
Aside from gout (which is also technically a form of arthritis), several other arthritic conditions can lead to pain in the big toe. Your pain and stiffness may be caused by:
- Osteoarthritis, the main form of “wear and tear” joint pain. Over time, the cartilage in the joint may wear away, causing the bones of the joint to rub painfully against one another and lock up.
- Post-traumatic arthritis, which is essentially like osteoarthritis except that it’s preceded by a specific injury to the toe. It could develop months or even years after the initial injury, but still much earlier than surrounding joints.
- Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory condition that results in the immune system mistakenly attacking your own tissues. In addition to joint pain and deformity, RA is linked with other serious medical conditions including fever, weight loss, heart problems, and more.
A big toe that has become extremely arthritic, stiff, and painful is known as hallux rigidus. Generally speaking, the joint progressively becomes less and less mobile, which makes it harder and harder to stand, walk, and balance without pain.
What Can I Do About My Big Toe Pain?
As with any painful problem you might be experiencing with your feet and ankles, a visit to Dr. Timson at the Community Foot Clinic of McPherson should be high on your to-do list.
When it comes to big toe pain, as you can see, there are a lot of different types of conditions that can produce very similar symptoms. However, despite these overlapping symptoms, the best treatment approach may be radically different depending on the precise nature of your injury, as well as your personal activity goals.
The way we might manage an early-stage bunion, for example, might be quite different from what we’d recommend for turf toe or gout. Bunions, as a progressive deformity, require ongoing preventative management. Turf toe is a soft tissue injury that just needs the right time and care to heal, while gout often requires dietary modifications and medications.
In short, the earlier you stop by to get a thorough examination, accurate diagnosis, and personalized treatment plan, the better off you’re going to be in both the short and long run.
That means less pain, more activity, and fewer trips to the foot doctor. (Not that we don’t love seeing you, of course—but we’d rather you just stay healthy and pain free!)
To request an appointment with Dr. Timson, you can complete our online contact form, or give our office a call at (620) 241-3313.