Toe Pain: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

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A women who suffering from toe pain

1Overview

The feet carry people from one location to another every single day. However, they are the part of the body that’s most neglected, not until they begin to hurt. When the feet hurt,
all that people want is a relief. However, the feet comprises various parts and the pain in a specific area may be symptoms of a disease or a result of trauma. One of the most common parts of the feet that become painful is the toe.

Toe pain can be a symptom of an underlying health crisis or a result of an injury.
Pain in the toe can arise from abnormalities or injury to any structures in the toe.
The toe has many parts like the nerves, skin, bones, soft tissues and the blood vessels. When any of these structures are affected, inflamed or injured, pain is inevitable.

Unless the patient has been diagnosed with the underlying health condition affecting the toe, he might suffer from pain for long periods. Toe pain is a common symptom because the feet are persistently exposed to activity and injury related to running, walking and other sports activities.

One of the most common causes of toe pain is gout and a fracture (broken toe).
The severity of the pain depends on the cause of the condition.

2Symptoms

Broken Toe

The symptoms of a broken toe include:

  • Pain
  • Dislocation
  • Swelling

When do you need to see a doctor? If the pain, dislocation, and swelling persist for more than a few days or the pain interferes with daily activities. However, once you encounter an accident that causes the broken toe, consulting with a doctor is important to ensure that there are no severe fractures.

Gout

Gout, a form of arthritis can also lead to pain in the toes. The common signs and symptoms include:

  • Excruciating pain and swelling in the big toe
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Clicking or popping noises
  • Heat
  • Change of appearance
  • Difficulty walking

Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Joint damage
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Loss of function
  • Difficulty walking

Osteoarthritis

  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • Loss of movement

Ingrown Toenails

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness

3Causes

Toe pain has a wide variety of causes including:

Broken Toe

A broken toe is more likely caused by accidentally dropping a heavy object on your toes or you stub your toe on a hard surface.

Gout

Gout is a type of arthritis linked to the accumulation of crystals in the joints of the body, more likely in the big toe. This condition occurs when excess uric acid, a body waste product in the blood, is deposited as crystals in the joints. In fact, the first symptom most people experience is excruciating pain and swelling in the big toe.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints. This condition is considered an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the thin membrane that lines the joints.

Osteoarthritis

This is the most common form of arthritis. It’s a chronic condition wherein the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones where the joints meet, begin to breakdown. This causes the bones to rub against each other, leading to pain. Osteoarthritis commonly affects the big toe.

Ingrown toe nail

An ingrown toe nail happens when the skin on one or both sides of the nail grow over it. This is a very painful condition and it may even lead to infection.

Other causes

A bunion is a bony bulge at the end of the food, next to the toe base. This may lead to pain that radiates to the toes. Another condition called hammertoe, wherein the second, third or fourth toe bend at the middle joint, may lead to pain too, especially when you’re wearing uncomfortable shoes.

4Risk Factors

Many factors might increase the risk of toe pain, including:

  • Obesity
  • Bone fracture
  • Flat feet
  • Gout
  • Hammer toe
  • Pronation of the foot
  • Weight-bearing
  • Peripheral artery disease

5Complications

The complications of toe pain depend on its cause. The most common complications of toe pain caused by a broken toe is infection and osteoarthritis. If the skin near the broken toe has been injured, this may lead to infection. Osteoarthritis may also occur when the fracture extends to one of the toe joints.

In arthritis that affects the toes, however, many complications can happen.
These include a complete or rapid breakdown of the cartilage, extreme toe pain, immobility, and difficulty in walking.

Even small problems can get worse over time. A simple foot pain or problem may lead to serious complications if it’s left untreated. Often, nerve damage or neuropathy can happen. This condition can cause pain, burning or stinging sensation, foot weakness, and tingling.

6Diagnosis

The doctor may provide a diagnosis for toe pain depending on the symptoms the patient manifests. Also, the doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination and an interview of personal and medical history.

The doctor will also check the skin to make sure it’s intact and receives adequate blood flow. Other diagnostic tests include:

Blood Tests

The doctor may request for blood tests to diagnose certain underlying conditions such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis. Also, a simple blood test or joint fluid test may confirm a diagnosis. For rheumatoid arthritis, the blood test will show increased levels of rheumatoid factor. A high uric acid level in the blood may indicate gout arthritis.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests can allow the doctor to visualize the structures inside the foot, particularly the toes.

X-ray

A radiography or x-ray is a simple test to create a two-dimensional photo of the bones that form the joint. X-rays allow the doctor to see bone spurs, joint space, and fractures.

Computed tomography scan (CT-scan)

Also called a computerized axial tomography scan (CAT scan), this procedure provides multiple images to help visualize internal structures. This test can help confirm foot problems that can’t be seen in x-rays.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

This test uses a strong magnet connected to a computer. It creates a photo of the internal structures of a certain part. Aside from the bones, the MRI scan shows the soft tissues. It can detect the severity of certain toe problems.

Bone Scan

A bone scan can show stress fractures as a result of repetitive trauma.

7Treatment

The treatments of toe pain rely on the cause and severity of the condition. These include:

Medicines

Medicines for Broken Toe

Toe pain is typically relieved by over-the-counter medications or pain relievers such as naproxen sodium, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. However, it is important to consult with a licensed doctor first before taking any medicines. Self-medicating is risky and you might suffer from the side effects of the medicines.

Stronger painkillers are prescribed by doctors if the condition is more severe such as a broken toe or extremely painful arthritis bouts.

Medicines for Gout

An acute gout attack is incredibly painful. To keep the pain and swelling under control, the doctor may recommend the following:

  • Take pain relievers as prescribed by a licensed doctor
  • Drink plenty of fluids, except alcohol and sugary drinks
  • Apply ice pack and elevate the foot

Even if gout attacks are painful, they usually peak and resolve within one week. The medicines used to treat gout are:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroids – These help relieve inflammation
  • Colchicine – A drug derived from a plant that has been used to treat gout for thousands of years.
  • Drugs to reduce uric acid levels like allopurinol, febuxostat, probenecid, lesinurad, and pegloticase.

Immobilization

For a broken toe, immobilization is important to promote healing and let the ends of the broken bones knit back together. Immobilization may be done through buddy taping, wearing a stiff-bottomed shoe or casting.

Surgery

In some cases, specifically, when it involves a broken toe, a surgeon may need to use plates, screws, and pins to promote healing and maintain the proper position of the bones.

Other surgical procedures include fracture repair, where the fractures can heal with the use of taping the broken bone and casting. Another surgical procedure involves arthroscopic surgery where the inflamed tissue and spurs are removed, particularly in arthritis cases.

8Prevention

The feet are often ignored and neglected, not until there are conditions that can cause pain and swelling. You can help prevent toe problems through these steps:

Always check your feet

Pay attention to your feet to prevent problems. Keep them clean and keep your toenails trimmed.

Avoid foods high in purines

A diet high in purines may trigger a gout arthritis flare up, which can be very painful.

Exercise your feet

There are various exercises to keep your toes and feet strong, pain-free and flexible. The examples of these exercises include the Achilles stretch, big-toe stretch and toe pull.

Use proper footwear

Always choose the proper and comfortable footwear, depending on the occasion. If you are going hiking or will walk long distances, wear running shoes that are comfortable. Ill-fitting or unsupportive shoes may lead to foot problems.

Avoid walking barefoot

Some areas are unsafe to walk barefoot. You might step on an object that might affect your toes and feet.

Buy new running shoes regularly

Experts recommend purchasing new athletic or running shoes every three months. Overused and worn out shoes may not absorb shock well and can’t provide the needed protection for your toes and feet.