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.
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:
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
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 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.
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 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:
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.
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
- 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 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:
- Decreased range of motion
- 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 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.
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.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Big Toe Arthritis (Hallux Rigidus). (n.d.).
Gout: Risk Factors, Diagnosis and Treatment. (2021).
Hygiene-related Diseases. (2017).
Ingrown Toenail. (2012).
Peripheral neuropathy. (2020).
Morton neuroma. (2021).
Tinea pedis. (2018).
Turf Toe. (2021).