Causes of Sharp Pain in Big Toe and When to Contact a Doctor (2022)

If you’re having pain in your big toe, you’re probably eager to figure out what’s causing it so you can find relief. It’s essential that you get to the root cause of your toe pain so you can take appropriate steps to heal.

The metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint connects the base of your big toe to the head of the first bone on the top of your foot. It also connects to the two tiny bones underneath this bone.

Injuries to this joint can interfere with your daily life, making simple activities difficult. Movement and weight-bearing actions often cause the most stress.

It’s important to reach out to a doctor whenever you have any new pain, but knowing the possible sources of pain can help you know how to manage the condition before your medical appointment.

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Pain in the big toe can have several causes. Some are from injuries, systemic medical conditions, or repeated strain over time. Often, it’s possible to relieve toe pain at home. For some causes, though, it’s important to contact a doctor.

Bunion

The medical term for a bunion is “hallux valgus.” It’s a toe deformity that occurs when the big toe joint angles in toward the second toe. A knobby, bony bump develops on the side of your foot below your toe joint, due to misalignment.

Bunions cause pain, irritation, and swelling at the base and side of your toe joint. Calluses and thick skin may form under your first and second toes.

Several factors can cause bunions, such as arthritis, standing for extended periods, and shoes that don’t fit properly. Genetic bone structure of the foot can also play a role, especially if you have flat feet.

You can wear special pads or orthotic inserts for shoes to provide support and cushioning. Wearing toe splints at night can help to realign your toes. A doctor may use padding and tape to move your foot into alignment to reduce pressure.

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To reduce pain, you can take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Natural anti-inflammatory options include ginger, fish oil, and curcumin.

Ingrown toenail

Ingrown toenails are most likely to affect your big toe. They occur when the edges or corners of your toenail grow into the skin on the side of your nail. This causes pain, swelling, and tenderness, especially when you put pressure on the toe.

Ingrown toenails have many causes, including:

  • improper trimming of the nail
  • injuries
  • pressure from shoes

Activities that cause you to put pressure on your feet for extended periods, such as ballet, soccer, and football, can make ingrown toenails more likely.

Some people are genetically inclined to get ingrown toenails, as are people who have irregular, curved toenails.

To prevent ingrown toenails, cut your toenails straight across to prevent them from angling into the skin. Seek medical attention immediately if you show signs of infection, such as:

  • pus
  • warmth
  • redness

Home remedies for ingrown toenails include soaking your feet in warm water a few times daily. Use a cotton ball soaked in olive oil to push the skin away from your toenail gently.

Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can also help. You may use topical steroid creams or antibiotics to prevent infection. Severe cases may require surgery.

Turf toe

Turf toe is a sprain that affects the soft tissue and ligaments at the base of the big toe joint.

Turf toe causes swelling, discoloration, and sharp pain. This may limit your mobility.

It is often the result of too much stress on your toe while flexing your foot. This may be due to direct force or a repetitive injury that develops slowly over time.

Turf toe commonly develops from sports activities that involve flexing the foot, when the big toe is hyperextended. This happens when the heel raises and there is substantial pressure on the forefoot.

Doctors may treat turf toe with NSAIDs or corticosteroid injections to help manage pain and inflammation. They may also give you stretches to increase strength and mobility or refer you to a physical therapist.

First aid treatment for minor turf toe is the RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, elevation):

  • Rest. Rest your foot as much as possible.
  • Ice. Ice your toe a few times per day.
  • Compression. Buddy tape the affected toe, use shoe cushions, or wear a compression bandage.
  • Elevation. When resting, prop up the leg affected by turf toe so the foot is higher than your heart.

You may require the use of crutches in more serious cases of turf toe. In the most severe cases, you may require surgery.

(Video) Turf Toe ,Big toe pain - Everything You Need To Know - Dr. Nabil Ebraheim

Surgery might be needed to fix:

  • tearing
  • fracture
  • joint instability
  • cartilage damage

Arthritis

Arthritis is the degeneration of the cartilage that cushions bones and joints. It commonly affects the big toe, a condition known as hallux rigidus.

Symptoms include pain, swelling, and stiffness, especially when walking or standing.

Arthritis of the toe can come on over time due to poor foot alignment as well as general wear and tear of the cartilage. People with fallen arches or pronated ankles may be especially likely to develop hallux rigidus, according to The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.

You may be able to reduce pain and inflammation by wearing shoes with a stiff sole or those that bend at the big toe joint. You can take NSAIDs or have corticosteroid injections to reduce pain and inflammation.

Physical therapy or stretching may also be beneficial. In severe cases of arthritis, you may require surgery.

Sesamoiditis

Sesamoiditis is an inflammatory foot condition that affects the two tiny bones under the big toe joint.

These are known as sesamoids, which are bones embedded in tendons. The tendons and surrounding tissues are also affected, making it difficult to straighten or bend your toe.

Sesamoiditis results from acute trauma or overuse. It causes dull pain under the big toe joint that comes and goes. It also causes inflammation and possibly bruising.

Wearing supports that bend the affected toe downward may help. Orthotic devices or shoe cushions may also help. Crutches or a walking cast can relieve pressure if complete immobilization is necessary.

Your doctor may recommend NSAIDs or corticosteroid injections to relieve pain and inflammation. Sometimes surgery is needed, especially if there are fractures to the sesamoids.

Gout

Gout is a metabolic condition that commonly affects the big toe joint. The medical term for gout in the MTP joint is podagra.

Gout is a form of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the blood that crystallizes and builds up in joints.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this can be due to diet and certain medical conditions, specifically:

  • obesity
  • congestive heart failure
  • hypertension
  • diabetes or insulin resistance
  • metabolic syndrome
  • reduced kidney function

Gout can also result from excessive alcohol, a high fructose diet, and purine-rich foods such as organ meat and red meat. Medications such as diuretics and cyclosporine can also increase your risk of gout, per The American College of Rheumatology.

(Video) Big Toe Pain - Everything You Need To Know - Dr. Nabil Ebraheim

Symptoms include intense pain, swelling, and tenderness around your big toe joint. The area may be inflamed, hot, and discolored. Sometimes symptoms are sudden and severe, especially at night.

You may wish to take NSAIDs to ease pain and inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe additional specific medications to treat the uric acid deposit and production, or steroids.

To reduce uric acid buildup, follow a balance diet that includes plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and fiber. Reduce your intake of red meat and seafood. Avoid drinks containing alcohol or sugar, and increase your water intake.

Sprained or broken toe

A sprained or broken toe is a common cause of toe injuries. Injury to a ligament results in a sprain, whereas a broken toe affects the actual bone.

If you sprain your toe, you may experience pain around your entire toe alongside bruising, swelling, and tenderness. You may have difficulty moving your toe.

Symptoms of a broken toe include:

  • throbbing pain
  • bruising
  • swelling

One possible sign of a broken toe is that it’s dislocated and sticking out at an odd angle. However, some fractures do not cause the bone to change position.

Pain can be so severe that it’s difficult to put any weight on your foot. But with some fractures, the pain goes away several hours after the impact.

Fractures will cause pain at the site of the break. With a sprain, the pain extends to the area surrounding the toe.

Both injuries can result from trauma or hyperextension to the toe and take several weeks to heal. Treatment may involve splinting or buddy taping the affected toe.

Rest as much as possible and avoid putting pressure on your foot. Wear shoes with padding or a stiff sole for protection and support. Apply a cold compress a few times per day and take NSAIDs to relieve pain and inflammation.

Severely broken toes may require a walking cast or surgery.

When to contact a doctor

(Video) Treatment of Numb Big Toes and Big Toe Callus with Seattle Foot Doctor Larry Huppin

Seek medical attention if you might have a sprain or fracture. Signs of infection also need prompt treatment, so look out for:

  • unusual swelling
  • pus
  • feeling hot or shivery

If you feel any numbness, loss of feeling in the toe or foot, or a tingling pins-and-needles sensation, you should seek medical assistance.

People living with diabetes should see a doctor about any foot issues. Diabetes can complicate foot injuries, per the CDC, so daily care and regular monitoring of foot health are important.

See a doctor in the case of severe pain or for pain that has not gone away after 2 weeks of home treatment.

NSAIDs and corticosteroid injections are often good options for pain and inflammation. You may also want to give hot and cold therapy a try. Simply apply a hot or cold compress to the affected area a few times daily for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

Rest as much as you can and elevate your foot when possible. Use a compression bandage if it’s appropriate.

There are a number of alternative ways to treat toe pain at home. Natural options for pain relief include:

  • turmeric
  • clove oil
  • willow bark

Additional natural treatment options include:

  • acupuncture
  • meditation
  • massage

Fatty acids such as omega-3s may be useful in treating joint stiffness and pain from arthritis, according to 2021 research.

Takeaway

(Video) Hallux Rigidus: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Big toe pain is something to pay attention to, treat, and monitor accordingly.

Treat your body with care and address any painful or unusual symptoms as soon as they arise. Keep your eye on your toe even after it starts to improve to make sure you’re healing properly.

Speak with a doctor if your foot pain is interfering with your daily activities or worsens over time. Your doctor can help you to decide on the best treatment plan.

FAQs

When should I see a doctor for big toe pain? ›

If your pain is severe, you should seek immediate attention. This is also true for severe swelling, and any evidence of infection including redness. You should also make an emergency visit if you are unable to place any weight on your foot.

How do I know if my toe pain is serious? ›

When to see a doctor
  1. the toe is very swollen.
  2. the pain is severe and does not go away after several hours.
  3. it is difficult to walk or to put weight on the foot.
  4. the toenail falls off or the area around it is very swollen.
  5. there are signs of infection around the toenail, such as itching, redness, and pus.
5 Aug 2019

How do I stop stabbing pain in my big toe? ›

Treatment may involve splinting or buddy taping the affected toe. Rest as much as possible and avoid putting pressure on your foot. Wear shoes with padding or a stiff sole for protection and support. Apply a cold compress a few times per day and take NSAIDs to relieve pain and inflammation.

Who should I see for big toe pain? ›

—a visit to the podiatrist is your best bet. A podiatrist is a specialist who manages and treats almost all symptoms that involve the ankle and/or the foot. If you are experiencing any of the following problems or symptoms, it's time to make an appointment to see a podiatrist. Numbness, pain or swelling in one foot.

How do I know if I have gout in my big toe? ›

It's characterized by sudden, severe attacks of pain, swelling, redness and tenderness in one or more joints, most often in the big toe. An attack of gout can occur suddenly, often waking you up in the middle of the night with the sensation that your big toe is on fire.

What does pain in the big toe indicate? ›

Big toe pain is often the result of injury or minor underlying medical conditions. Arthritis, fractures, and gout may all cause big toe pain. Most cases of big toe pain are easily treatable with over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. However, some causes, such as sesamoiditis, may require more in-depth clinical treatment.

What causes sharp shooting pain in toes? ›

Diabetic neuropathy

Typically, the nerve pain first affects the toes and surrounding areas, and it may then slowly spread to the rest of the feet and up the legs. Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy include: tingling, burning, sharp, or shooting pain in the toes or feet. the sensation of an electric shock in these areas.

What causes toe pain without injury? ›

Some common causes of toe pain include arthritis, bunions, calluses, and nail conditions. Toe pain can come on suddenly and severely, or it may develop gradually over time. It may last briefly or be constant. Symptoms can include prickling, burning, or pins-and-needles sensations.

What causes nerve pain in big toe? ›

The following are some common causes of nerve pain in the big toe or other toes: Gout, hallux rigidus or hallux limitus. Sesamoiditis. Hammertoe, mallet toe or claw foot.

What can cause toe pain without injury? ›

5 Causes of Chronic Toe Pain
  • Ingrown nails. Ingrown nails form when the edge of your nail digs into the skin on the side of your nail. ...
  • Bunions. Bunions, also known as hallux valgus, look like a bony bump on your big toe. ...
  • Gout. ...
  • Corn, calluses, and hammertoes. ...
  • Fractures.

How do I know if my toe is broken or just bruised? ›

How do I know if my toe is broken or just bruised? A bruise on the bone can feel similar to a break, Dr. King says. “The most obvious sign that it's a fracture is if the painful toe is pointing in a different direction than your other toes.

What are the first signs of arthritis in toes? ›

Common symptoms of toe arthritis may include: You have pain in the toes that can take hours or days to subside. You have swelling and inflammation around the toe joints. With rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, swelling and edema is associated with redness.

What causes nerve pain in big toe? ›

The following are some common causes of nerve pain in the big toe or other toes: Gout, hallux rigidus or hallux limitus. Sesamoiditis. Hammertoe, mallet toe or claw foot.

Videos

1. Sharp pain in toes
(On the Ball Orthotics)
2. Doctors warn of mystery coronavirus symptom called 'COVID toes'
(ABC News)
3. Causes and Treatment of Pain in the Big Toe Joint
(Indy Podiatry)
4. What Causes Pain in the Big Toe Joint? With Seattle Podiatrist Larry Huppin
(Foot & Ankle Center of Washington)
5. Arthritis in the foot (big toe) || What it feels like & why it happens
(Top Doctors UK)
6. Sharp, Burning, Tingling Top of Foot Pain? [FIX Your Nerve Pain!]
(Michigan Foot Doctors)

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