The big toe is a small part of the body but a major player in many physical actions we take for granted. Never mind squatting down to pick up something – every time you take a step your big toes flex to support you and help you keep your balance. Big toe pain can compromise your daily life to a point where even walking to the car is challenging. Understanding the major causes of big toe pain is the first step to treating it. Here’s what you should know.
What does it mean when my big toe hurts?
In the case of severe and debilitating big toe pain that comes on suddenly, you may want to head immediately to your doctor to have it looked at. You may have broken a toe or have other injuries that need immediate treatment.
If your big toe pain is episodic, intermittent, or otherwise comes on slowly, tracking that toe pain and its symptoms may be your best choice. Start to make a note of your pain, using the following questions as a guide.
Where do you feel the pain?
Is the pain truly in your big toe, or is it originating at some other part of your foot? Is the pain in the meaty part of the toe, or does it occur more in the joint where the toe meets the foot?
What does the pain feel like?
Are you experiencing big toe pain when walking, a throbbing pain in big toe, big toe joint pain, or a sharp pain in your big toe? Did it come on gradually or was it sudden?
Are there are any visual symptoms?
Do you notice any redness or swelling around the big toe, large deformities on the toe or anywhere else on the foot, or signs of infection? Is there swelling in or around the joint of the big toe, or are there other visual signs of injury?
When do symptoms occur?
Are you more likely to experience pain or other symptoms in the morning, while exercising, or while wearing specific shoes? Do you experience big toe pain at night, or is it more intense at other times of the day? Does it occur after any particular activity, or are symptoms present at rest, too?
Have you tried treatments, and do they work?
Does your big toe pain subside after rest, ice, or movement? Keep careful track of what works to relieve your pain, including diet and exercise and any changes in pain levels before, during, and after.
If you can manage to track several days of your big toe pain, it may be easier to determine the cause (and figure out the proper treatment!).
Most common big toe pain causes
Big toe pain can bring strong people to their knees (or their seats!). Here are the most big toe pain causes.
1. Corns, callouses, and blisters
Corns, callouses, and blisters may cause big toe pain when walking but at no other times. This makes sense, as each of these conditions generally develops over time with pressure or friction (or a combination of the two).
Ill-fitting shoes or overuse (i.e., walking for a long time when not in condition to do so) are common causes of these types of big toe pain.
Plantar warts are hard growths that occur on the weight-bearing surfaces of your feet. These growths can protrude from the base of the big toe. They may even grow painfully inward, placing pressure on the structures inside the big toe.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) that enters the skin of the foot through tiny cracks or cuts causes plantar warts. These are not serious but can cause pain that makes walking difficult.
3. Ingrown toenails
Who knew that a simple act of hygiene could cause throbbing pain in big toe? This is the case with ingrown toenails.
When you trim your toenails, you may trim them to follow the shaping of your toe, curving down the side. Unfortunately, as they grown in they can actually curl in towards the skin of your toe, digging into the skin around the toenail.
Left untreated, this can result in an infection that requires surgical intervention.
Gout is one of the causes of big toe pain that may appear suddenly and without warning.
This is a condition where excessive amounts of uric acid crystals collect in the joint. An outbreak of gout may be more likely to strike at night, when a drop in body temperature speeds up this process. The body also absorbs synovial fluid in the joints at night, while uric acid concentrations stay high.
This can result in extreme and severe pain in the joint of the big toe, so much so that even the covers brushing your toe joint is excruciating.
There are over 100 types of arthritis. One of the most common types that affects the big toe is hallux rigidus. The most common type of arthritis in the foot, hallux rigidus affects more women than men but most often affects people over the age of 50.
People with this condition may feel big toe pain when walking, specifically when pushing off the big toe. Over time, bone spurs can form, increasing the pain and making walking without pain impossible.
Osteoarthritis is another form of arthritis that affects the big toe. This wear and tear condition occurs as the cartilage in the joint begins to wear down over time, resulting in painful bone-on-bone rubbing. The resulting joint inflammation can cause debilitating pain.
The feet are incredibly resilient and strong, but in the end we have toes sticking out that are vulnerable. Stubbing your toe is a painful experience that most everyone can relate to, but what happens if your throbbing big toe becomes swollen and stays painful well after it should have recovered?
You may have a fracture in the toe (or even a break). Any unusual or excessive force applied in just the right way can cause a fracture, including tripping, stubbing a toe, or dropping something on your foot.
Bunions occur when the joint at the base of the big toe begins to grow and stick out. The skin around that area may become red and inflamed.
Often forcing feet into narrow shoes causes this. An estimated 33% of women in the U.S. have bunions caused by tight and narrow shoes.
8. Overuse injuries: hammer toe and turf toe
Hammer toe occurs when something (generally shoes) causes your toes to bend toward each other or down toward the ball of your foot over a long period of time.
The joints most often affected are those that lie closest to the rest of the foot. This means that the big toe can develop hammer toe, but the second, third, and fourth toes are most often involved. This condition changes the underlying bone structure of each toe at the joint and can make walking very painful.
The major cause of this type of big toe pain is improper footwear. Shoes that are too narrow at the ball of the foot and around the toes can eventually painfully reshape your bones.
Another overuse injury is turf toe. Turf toe is the name given for a sprain or strain of the ligaments surrounding the big toe.
This is a common injury for athletes who perform on turf and may be a result of either digging the big toe into an unforgiving and immoveable surface or from pushing abruptly off the same. Football players are most likely to suffer from this condition.
How to treat big toe pain
How to treat big toe pain depends largely on the cause of your pain. More severe or serious causes of big toe pain may require more interventional treatments, while others benefit from simple lifestyle changes. Depending on the cause of your pain, here’s what you should try for big toe pain treatments.
1. First, do no harm
The most important treatment is prevention.
Wear comfortable shoes with plenty of room for your toes to move around. Giving your feet plenty of room can prevent many of the major causes of big toe pain.
2. Rest, ice, and heat
Another one of the best treatments is rest. If you are experiencing acute big toe pain, you may do more harm than good to keep moving around. Of course, if you are tracking your symptoms and their response to treatment and find that gentle movement relieves pain, that may be a good place to start.
For some outbreaks of pain, ice in combination with rest can reduce swelling and pain at least temporarily. Elevating the feet and applying ice in a 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off pattern for several hours may offer relief. Conversely, soaking in feet heated water may also help.
3. Big toe pain medications
For most big toe pain, over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can manage pain when used as directed. These a good treatment for the acute, or initial, phase of pain, but should not be taken for long periods of time as they can cause other health conditions with overuse.
Further, some medications may actually contribute to big toe pain. Diuretics, immunosuppressants, and some treatments for Parkinson’s disease can increase your risk of developing gout. Talk to your doctor about all of your medications to see if changing dosages or types of medication, if possible, can reduce your big toe pain.
4. Condition-specific treatments
For ingrown toenails that have not become infected, soaking in hot, soapy water is the first step to treatment. Next, gently lift the edge of the imbedded toenail and inserting something to keep it lifted while it grows (e.g., a piece of dental floss or small wedge of sterile cotton). Ingrown toenails can be prone to infection, so if home care does not work, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or can help you remove the ingrown toenail.
For big toe pain caused by gout or arthritis, the above treatments combined with changes in diet can help relieve pain.
Gout is caused by uric acid buildup in the joints. People who consume large quantities of meats, particularly lunchmeats and bacon, are more susceptible to gout. Limiting meat consumption, reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption, and increasing the amount of fresh food in your diet can help improve overall health and prevent outbreaks of gout.
A diet that includes anti-inflammatory foods like a rainbow of vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats may not relieve big toe pain from gout and arthritis instantly, but it can support healthy long-term healing while you manage acute flare-ups of pain.
5. Care for severe conditions
Treating fractures and overuse conditions like hammer toe and turf toe may require supportive interventions. This may include something called a “buddy tape.” With this, the big toe uses the second toe as a kind of splint. The toes are taped together to provide stability and support. In many cases of fracture, this extra support is enough to help in healing. It can worsen some conditions, though, so always talk to your doctor about the best treatment approach.
Some conditions that cause big toe pain may require surgery. For example, surgery for bunions that make walking impossible can help realign your ligaments and tendons. This surgery straightens the big toe and removing the painful bump. This surgery is often only suggested as a last resort and in extreme cases. Simply changing your shoes can help relieve most cases of bunion pain.
In the end, successful treatment of big toe pain is only as good as the diagnosis. Start there. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.