Do I Need to See a Doctor for a Broken Toe? Treatment and Recovery Options
Posted by Jenn F. on Thursday, December 7th, 2017
If you’ve ever broken a toe, you know it hurts like hell. It’s such a small part of the body, and yet an injury there causes so much discomfort and chaos in your everyday life. You’ve probably heard many tall tales, like the mistaken belief that “there’s nothing you can do about a broken toe” or the false assumption that you can just “tape the toes and continue running.” But before you think of a broken toe as a “simple injury,” consider this: of the 26 bones in the foot, 19 are toe bones, and the velocity of the toe hitting a stationary object is said to fall between 60-80 mph. Each year, broken toes account for about 9 percent of fractures treated professionally.There’s a lot of potential for debilitating injury here!
While it’s true that we sometimes tell patients to rest, ice, compress, elevate, and wear a stiff-soled shoe following a toe injury—things people can do themselves at home—the important part of what we do is confirming the extent of the damage and giving patients peace of mind during their recovery. We can’t tell you how many people come to us months or even years down the road with complications from a broken toe that wasn’t evaluated at the time of injury. So if you’re asking yourself, “Do I need to see a doctor for a broken toe?”, we recommend you always get a professional assessment of a fractured toe as soon as possible to get you set off on the path to recovery.
Why You Need to See a Doctor for a Broken Toe
Don’t worry; it’s not “dramatic” to see a doctor for a broken toe. It’s smart. Would you try to nurse a broken arm at home? Probably not. So why try to heal your own broken toe? The toe may be small, but there is a wide range of types of toe fractures you can suffer, not to mention three severity grades, as with any type of break.
Types of toe fractures include:
- Displaced vs. Non-displaced: If the bone has fallen out of normal alignment, it’s possible the toe could remain crooked forever. If the displacement of the fractured bone ends exceeds 2 millimeters, there is a high probability the toe is unable to heal on its own and will require surgery to correct the non-union. Before jumping into surgery, we may suggest a closed reduction in which we inject the toe with a local anesthetic and push the bones back into alignment without making a single incision. If this procedure fails to realign the bones, you may need an open reduction with internal fixation, which includes stabilizing hardware like a small pin or plate with screws. This is especially commonplace among athletes looking to get back to rigorous physical activity sooner rather than later.
- Intra-Articular vs. Extra-Articular: When a fracture involves the cartilage surface covering at the end of the bones, this is called an “intra-articular fracture.” By contrast, an “extra-articular” fracture involves no disruption to the cartilage—and that’s a good thing. Irregular joint surfaces are prone to rapid cartilage degeneration, arthritis, and functionality concerns in the future. Surgery is rare unless there is displacement as well. Even so, your injury should be monitored by a professional. Conservative cartilage treatments may include taking NSAIDs, steroid injections, and special exercises.
- Angulated vs. Non-Angulated: Angulated fractures involve a tilted fracture line of more than 20 degrees, where the bone is still together at one end but pulled apart at the other. This is a fairly common occurrence among broken toes, but it may or may not cause many problems. Depending on the degree, these toe fractures may be fixed externally or internally.
- Open vs. Closed: Most people with open fractures—where the bone protrudes through the skin—know to see a doctor. However, most people don’t know that a smashed toenail counts as an “open fracture” because the distal phalanx is just beneath the nail. Patients often need updated tetanus shots to make sure infection and blood poisoning do not threaten life and limb. In medical school, we’re told that any open fracture exposed for more than eight hours most likely has a bone infection. This is serious business, so treatment usually involves taking high doses of IV antibiotics, with a risk of amputation.
How Do Podiatrists Treat Broken Toes?
When you come into our office with a broken toe, the first thing we’ll do is take diagnostic imaging to assess the degree of injury. If it’s a mild fracture, we may put you in a stiff-soled recovery shoe or walking boot for three weeks and send you on your way with instructions for home care icing, compressing, elevating, pain relief, and stretching. We can also show you how to properly tape the toes without making the pain worse. If it’s a moderate fracture, a short cast can greatly relieve pain and ensure more straightforward healing. If it’s angulated or displaced, we may numb and straighten it right then and there or discuss surgical options. Open fractures will be addressed with shots, antibiotics, or wound dressings. As sports medicine doctors, we’ll also give you helpful tips and tricks for getting back to running or any other athletic pursuits faster. The good news is that it’s not always necessary to completely halt running or training for an extended period of time.
Avoiding Broken Toe Complications
Patients who put off getting a broken toe examined arrive at our office unhappy, limping, and in great pain. If the bone never heals, you will end up with persistent swelling (known as “sausage toe”), chronic pain, traumatic arthritis, and deformity that impacts your mobility. Don’t guess and leave your healing up to chance. Get a professional opinion to prevent a world of hurt down the road.
Here at the Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine in New York City, we are equipped to treat your broken toe no matter how severe it is, getting you pain-free as soon as possible. Contact us today to learn more or to book an appointment.
If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, Dr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.