If one of your toes hurts like hell and you have an inkling that you might have broken it, you may be frantically Googling things like, Should I go to the hospital for a broken toe? and then wondering, What does broken toe treatment even entail?
Well, broken toes are pretty common—and they’re also no joke, Dominic King, D.O., a staff physician and medical orthopaedic physician in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
So if you injured one of your toes and are wondering how serious it is and whether to seek care ASAP, you’re not being overdramatic. Here’s what you should know.
Yes, see somebody if you think you have a broken toe.
Most people break a toe by stubbing it or dropping something on it, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you did something like that and have broken toe symptoms like pain, swelling, and discoloration, per the Mayo Clinic—then you’ll definitely want to seek care. “Any time you think you may have broken a toe, even though it may seem like a very simple problem, you should be evaluated by a medical professional,” says Dr. King.
One of the first things the doctor may do is give you an X-ray to see what’s going on with the toe in question, Matt Bayes, M.D., sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist at Bluetail Medical Group in Chesterfield, Missouri, tells SELF. They may also check for tenderness, injuries to the skin, blood flow, and nerve function to help diagnose the break, the Mayo Clinic explains.
It’s important to get your toe assessed because all broken toes are not alike. There’s actually a pretty wide range of severity when it comes to a broken toe, depending on factors like which toe you broke and the type of break, Gennady Kolodenker, a doctor of podiatric medicine and foot and ankle specialist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California, tells SELF.
What can you expect from broken toe treatment?
The severity of your break affects the kind of broken toe treatment you need. Generally, treating a simple fracture—meaning that the parts of your bone are still lined up properly—involves immobilizing the toe so it can heal in one of a few ways.
Your doctor may put you in a walking boot for a few weeks, Dr. Bayes says. Or they may have you do what’s called “buddy taping,” where you tape the injured toe to your neighboring toe, which then acts like a splint, the Mayo Clinic explains. If you do this, Daniel Guss, M.D., M.B.A., a foot and ankle orthopaedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends that you put a piece of gauze between your toes to keep them from rubbing together, and don’t tape them too tight. (And, as Dr. King points out, buddy taping a bad break could actually make things worse—another example of why it’s wise to see a doctor.) If it’s painful to wear a regular shoe, your doctor might provide you with a special stiff-bottomed shoe to protect the toe and make space for swelling, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
While most breaks are not too serious, neglecting to correctly treat a badly broken toe in a timely manner can result in improper healing and issues down the road, Dr. Guss says. “If this is mismanaged, you could end up with a premature arthritic joint or an inability to walk normally,” Dr. Bayes adds. Here are a few signs and scenarios that require immediate attention and specialized medical treatment like going to urgent care or the ER (instead of, say, waiting to see your primary care physician the next day).
Big toe breaks
Breaking your big toe—which has a lot to do with your balance, strength, and gait—is a more complicated injury to treat, Dr. Kolodenker says. Big toe breaks may need a cast or a splint to heal, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And although it’s not common, sometimes small pieces of the bone can break off and prevent proper healing, potentially requiring surgery, the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains.
Other severe breaks are those that cause the toe to look crooked, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. If a toe break is displaced (i.e., your toe bone is pulled out of alignment) or angulated (it’s at a wrong angle), then it’s really important to get it fixed right away, Dr. King says. The doctor may have to manipulate the fragments of your toe bone back into the right position so that they fit snugly and heal properly, the Mayo Clinic explains, adding that they’ll numb your toe first. (Phew.)