Toe Pain: Possible Causes and When to Seek Treatment

By Latifa deGraft-Johnson, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 26, 2022

Whether you’re walking, running, stooping, or standing, you rely on your feet.

But, you may not realize the roles your toes play in mobility and balance until you experience toe pain or injury. 

We’ve all felt the pain of stubbing a toe in the dark, which later heals, but what does it mean when toe pain won’t leave us alone and we can’t figure out the cause? 

This article will cover the symptoms and causes of toe pain, treatment, and when to see a medical provider.

Symptoms

Though toes seem simple, they’re quite complex anatomical structures.

Tendons, ligaments, fat deposits, and networks of small bones all work together to bear weight, prevent injury, and ease mobility. 

When these networks go awry, you may experience any of the following:

  • Burning or tingling sensations
  • Numbness
  • Poor mobility
  • Sharp or throbbing pain
  • Uncomfortable pressure
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Common Causes

Athlete’s Foot

Athlete’s foot, medically diagnosed as tinea pedis, is a fungal infection affecting the skin of the foot.

It presents as dry, scaly red patches or fissures in the skin between the toes.

It can be diagnosed by skin scrapings sent to a lab for examination. 

Athlete’s foot is a widespread condition in hot, humid environments.

Athlete’s foot is caused by dermatophyte fungi, which can spread through using damp public spaces like locker rooms or showers while barefoot.

There are many over-the-counter topical treatments available in stores, but you can also prevent the spread of athlete’s foot by:

  • Avoiding public facilities like pools, showers, and spas
  • Keeping your feet clean and dry
  • Keeping your nails trimmed and clean
  • Wearing breathable shoes and socks, alternating pairs regularly

Nerve Damage

If you’re feeling tingling, throbbing, or lightning-like pains in the toes, you may be suffering from nerve damage.

When the nervous system begins to malfunction or degrade through age, repetitive stress, or illness, we experience a condition called neuropathy.

This condition describes the weakening or degeneration of nervous pathways and is often seen in our hands and feet. 

Neuropathy can develop after trauma to the feet or toes.

Diabetic individuals are at a higher risk for nerve damage in the feet.

Arthritis

Arthritis is an umbrella term referring to inflammation of the joints and connective tissues in the body. This condition can progress slowly until it’s painful and difficult to move the joint.

When the joint tissue in our big toe degenerates toward immobility, this is known as hallux rigidus.

Genetic foot structures such as “flat feet” are prone to developing hallux rigidus.

It may also occur after overuse of the joint through excessive bending or kneeling with toes bent. Inflammatory diseases like gout can play a role in developing arthritis. 

There are treatments to help alleviate pain.

Surgical procedures are available if the condition severely impacts mobility or quality of life.

Bunions

Swelling commonly seen in arthritis may be mistaken for a bunion, a bump that forms near the big toe joint caused by misaligned bones or narrow-toed shoes. 

Bunions may produce symptoms such as:

  • A bony bump forming at the base of the big toe
  • Crossing of the big toe over the second toe
  • Pain across the joint of the big toe
  • Thick or reddened skin at the edge of the toe

Bunions are irreversible without surgery but can be managed and prevented from progressing if caught early.

Wearing shoes with wide toe boxes, shoe inserts, and toe spacers are some common methods of management. 

Gout

Gout is a form of arthritis that commonly affects the joint at the base of the big toe.

This condition is caused by excess urate crystals in the joints when your body overproduces uric acid or your kidneys don’t process it fully.

Symptoms of gout include:

  • Inflammation of joint
  • Intense joint pain
  • Limited joint mobility
  • Redness or warmth of joint

The greatest risk for developing gout in your joints is genetics, but medications and consumption habits can increase risks.

Some foods produce high levels of uric acid, such as fish, red meat, sugary drinks, and alcohol.

Gout progresses through stages, allowing you to make lifestyle changes and treat the condition when it’s caught early on.

Many people experience gout in flare-ups, which may last three to 10 days.

At this stage, the joint may not hurt between flare-ups, and pain is more manageable.

Fungal Nails

When your immune system or blood circulation loses efficiency, your nails become more susceptible to fungal infection.

You’re especially at risk when sharing public resources like showers, locker rooms, pools, or pedicure tools.

Symptoms of fungal nail infections include:

  • Buildup beneath the nail
  • Discoloration
  • Distorted shape
  • Thickening, crumbling, or brittleness

Severe cases may cause pain. If your immune system is suppressed, infections may spread from the nail to other areas of the body.

Proper hygiene, foot protection in public spaces, and breathable footwear are common methods of prevention.

Turf Toe

Turf toe is a term for hyperextension of the big toe.

Though usually a sports injury, this can occur in anyone who exerts a force on their toe joints.

The ligaments and tissues surrounding the metatarsophalangeal joint (MTP) can stretch or rip as a result of hyperextension.

In severe cases, the joint may become dislocated. 

Turf toe can show up as:

  • Bruising
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness or pain

Though symptoms of this hyperextension are similar to those of gout, the treatments are different.

It’s important to know the difference between turf toe and gout

Warts (Common Warts)

Common warts are often seen on the hands but may appear on the feet or elsewhere on the body.

If you find a wart on the soles of your feet, it’s considered a plantar wart. 

Common warts are small, rough growths often featuring small black dots.

Plantar warts look similar but may develop a callus covering them as they grow.

They’re often associated with pain due to their location at the weight-bearing parts of your feet. 

Both types are spread through contact with a strain of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be spread by sharing towels or hygiene tools. 

Warts tend to be more of a superficial concern than a medical concern.

Because warts are common, there are many methods of treatment available.

Treatment

Treatment for toe pain varies depending on the condition.

Some conditions, such as gout, have an ample supply of home remedies.

When home treatments for injuries – like the R.I.C.E. method – don’t provide relief, seek medical assistance.

Modern medicine has developed medications and surgeries to treat many toe pain problems.

Concerned about foot pain? Chat with a provider through K Health.
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When to See a Medical Provider

Check in with your doctor if you have diabetes and you’re experiencing foot or toe pain, as this situation can be more serious for diabetic individuals.

Your medical providers should address sudden injury to the toes.

Whether doctors provide on-site treatment or suggest home treatments, professional advice can prevent further injury and long-term pain. 

Other scenarios to consider medical expertise include pain that keeps you from everyday activities, persistent or recurring pain, and when at-home treatment doesn’t help.

How K Health Can Help

Did You Know You Can Get Affordable Primary Care with the K Health App?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

When Should I Worry About Toe Pain?
Mild pain in the toes generally isn’t something to worry about. But if the pain worsens or doesn’t respond to home treatment, you may want to check in with a medical professional.
What Can Cause Toe Pain without Injury?
A few conditions which can cause toe pain without injury are: Fungal infections Gout Ingrown nails Natural deformities or misalignments Warts
How Do I Get Rid of Pain in My Toes?
There are different methods of toe pain treatment depending on the condition and severity. You may want to research the fastest way to relieve pain before looking into long-term solutions. A doctor may suggest home treatment, medications, or surgery to mitigate discomfort. It’s worthwhile to seek a professional’s opinion.
What is Morton's Toe?
Morton’s neuroma, or Morton’s toe, is a pinched nerve between the toes. People who suffer from Morton’s toe experience pain and tenderness, numbness, thickened tissue, or the sensation of a hard lump beneath the toe. Though the cause is unknown, abnormal positioning of toes plays a factor in this condition. This may be commonly seen among people who wear high heels, ballet slippers, or ill-fitting shoes. Flat feet, high arches, and bunions may also factor into this nerve condition. An orthopedist can differentiate if you’re suffering from Morton's toe or another condition and can confirm the diagnosis via ultrasound.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Latifa deGraft-Johnson, MD

Dr. Latifa deGraft-Johnson is a board-certified family medicine physician with 20 years of experience. She received her bachelor's degree from St. Louis University, her medical degree from Ross University, and completed her family medicine residency at the University of Florida. Her passion is in preventative medicine and empowering her patients with knowledge.

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