Most people have dropped something on their foot at some point and wondered if they had a broken toe—or if the pain will just go away on its own.
A broken toe may not be obvious, but the most common signs that you fractured it includes severe pain and an audible cracking or popping sound that is heard when the small bone in the toe fractures.
Here's what you should know about broken toes, including causes, symptoms, treatment, and possible complications.
Most broken toes are the result of dropping something heavy on the toe. However, there are some other less common causes of a broken toe:
A missed step
A severely stubbed toe
An aggravated stress fracture from repeated impact on a hard surface
Abnormal foot structure
A broken toe is a painful injury. The pain typically comes on instantly and is very intense. Other symptoms of a broken toe include:
Swelling and bruising
Trouble walking normally (However, being able to walk on a toe does not rule out a break.)
Pain while walking or putting on shoes
Typically, these symptoms warrant a visit to your doctor for assessment.
Go to the emergency room if any of the following also apply:
A traumatic or crushing toe injury
A sudden increase in severe pain or swelling
An open wound or bleeding
Sudden numbness or tingling
A crooked or deformed toe
Fever or chills
If the trauma to your toe has broken the skin and you can see bone, it is likely that you have a compound fracture, which will require immediate medical care.
Your doctor will be able to tell by sight or, in some cases, with imaging, if your toe is broken and how it should be treated.
For example, if you have an obvious toe deformity, an X-ray will determine if the bone needs any special treatment, such as splinting or applying a cast.
Unless it's serious, most broken toes can be treated modestly.
Less severe toe fractures can sometimes be cared for at home with simple injury treatment that includes rest, ice, and elevation. Keep these tips in mind in the days following your injury:
Avoid walking or putting excess pressure on the joint.
Ice the affected toe several times a day for no more than 20 minutes.
Keep your foot elevated when you can to decrease the swelling in the foot.
Wear a shoe with a stiff sole to prevent any movement of the joint while walking.
Talk to your doctor about using over-the-counter pain medication.
When intervention is needed, most cases are treated with a splint, or buddy taping, in which the broken toe is taped to the toe next to it in order to keep it stable and aligned as it heals.
After the splint or buddy taping is removed, it's safe to begin gentle stretching and exercises for the broken toe. The goal of these exercises, which can be prescribed by a health care provider, is to obtain the same range of motion as the same toe on the opposite foot.
If your injury causes your toe to appear crooked or if you think you've broken your big toe, this is considered serious. A broken big toe may require a cast and if your toe appears deformed, a doctor may need to set it back in place or perform surgery.
It is also possible, in rare cases, for a small bit of bone to break off during the trauma of a toe injury, which would require surgery in order for the toe to heal properly.
With proper medical care, most broken toes will health within four to six weeks.
The most common complication of a broken toe is trauma to the toenail of the affected toe. Toenails may become discolored, turn black and blue, and even fall off.
The toenail will usually regrow normally, but it may be wise to see a foot doctor as you heal. A podiatrist can help you avoid ingrown toenails or any infection in the nail bed as your toe heals. If blood collects under the nail, a doctor may need to make a small hole in the nail to allow the blood to escape.
In addition, some people are more prone to chronic pain or stiffness in the affected joint after a broken toe. In some cases, arthritis may develop in joint the future.
If a broken toe isn't treated properly, nonunion (failure to heal) or malunion (healing in an incorrect position) can occur. This can cause deformity and chronic pain down the line and may be cause for surgery.
A Word From Verywell
Intense pain in a toe could also be a signal of a stress fracture, which is usually caused by overtraining or overuse, repeated pounding or impact on a hard surface, or increasing the time, type, or intensity of exercise too rapidly.
Regardless of the suspected cause, you should consult with a health care provider about any foot pain that continues for more than one week.