When to See a Doctor for Broken Toe
You dropped something heavy on your toe and now it really hurts. Could it be broken?
It might be—even if you can walk on it.
Ultimately, consulting a physician may be the only way to know for sure if your toe is broken. Doctors can order X-rays, if needed, to confirm or rule out a fracture (or fractures) in the bones of your foot. However, you don’t necessarily need to head to the emergency room or clinic.
Learn more about how to manage a possible broken toe, including home treatment and when to seek professional medical care.
Dropping something on your foot and stubbing your toe are the most common causes of a broken toe. Of course, a foot injury does not always result in a break, and it can be difficult to determine if the pain you’re experiencing is due to a broken bone or bruised skin, muscles, and bone.
Osteoporosis, or thinning and weakening of the bones, can also cause broken toes. Osteoporosis increases the likelihood that a toe will break if something is dropped on it.
Excess stress on the foot can cause broken toes as well. Runners, for instance, may develop stress fractures, or tiny cracks in the bones of the toe. Stress fractures are more common in individuals who quickly ramp up physical activity, rather than gradually increasing activity over time.
When your toe hurts, your first order of business is to relieve the pain. You don’t need to spend time figuring out if your toe is broken. If your foot is not obviously deformed and there are no visible bones, at-home first aid for an injured toe and a broken toe are the same.
Get off your feet as soon as possible. Elevate the injured foot to minimize swelling. (Elevating the foot can also relieve the throbbing pain you may feel when your foot is lower than your heart.) Wrap an ice pack in a thin towel and apply it to your injured toe. The ice will ease your pain and decrease inflammation. Keep the ice in place for 20 minutes, if you can; then, remove. Apply ice to your toe for 20 minutes every hour you’re awake. The next day, ice your toe at least two or three times.
Take over-the-counter pain medication as needed. You can use either acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Because ibuprofen has anti-inflammatory as well as pain-relieving properties, many healthcare providers recommend ibuprofen for injuries.
Do not walk or bear weight on your toe if it hurts to do so. Gradually increase activity as tolerated.
If it hurts to wear a shoe, keep your shoes off as much as possible. If you must wear a shoe, choose one that’s roomy.
Some people recommend “buddy taping,” or wrapping the injured toe and the one next to it with tape, to keep the injured toe stable. Taping may alleviate pain, but if the toe is broken and the bones are not properly aligned, taping may cause additional problems.
If your toe is misshapen or a bone is sticking out, seek medical care immediately. It’s also a good idea to see a doctor if your big toe is the one affected, as injuries to this toe are more likely to be severe.
You should also see a doctor if you experience any numbness or tingling in your foot, or if your toe doesn’t improve with home treatment. If you cannot walk normally within a day or two of your injury, consult a physician.
Some doctors recommend professional evaluation of all possibly broken toes, to ensure that all bones are aligned properly before healing begins. Left untreated, many simple foot injuries can lead to bigger, and more painful, problems.
If you have an exposed bone, it’s best to head to the emergency room. Otherwise, you can schedule an appointment with your regular healthcare provider or visit an urgent care. If your toe is badly broken, you may need to see a foot and ankle surgeon.
With proper treatment, most broken toes heal without complication.