I maybe broke a toe last month, still having off-and-on pain. Now what?
June 15, 2013 4:04 PM   Subscribe

On May 20th, I stubbed my pinkie toe very very badly. I wasn't sure if I'd broken it, but it hurt enough that I taped it up for a couple of days. The reading I did suggested that that was all a doctor would probably do for a broken pinkie toe, anyway. The toe swelled up some, and I experienced some pretty dramatic bruising, much of it focused on the "knuckle" area of my foot, right above the toe. Weeks later, I'm still having episodes of pain that come and go. I'm not sure how to proceed. Details within...

I can wear sandals most of the time and I'll forget the foot is even a problem, but if I have to wear enclosed shoes, it hurts. (I may be starting a new job soon, and if so I'll probably need enclosed shoes.) I go for long walks at night and usually the toe won't hurt... But then today I walked around a grocery store for about 15 minutes, and now my toe hurts again.

It's possible I didn't tape the toe for long enough. I did it for a few days, and at first it did help the pain, but after a few days the toe felt better when I didn't tape it, so I stopped taping.

I broke my big toe years ago, but that was different... It hurt a lot more to start with, and seemed like it healed up faster. Really, I don't know what's going on, here. I'm worried that this time I may have broken some bone in the knuckle area, and not just the toe. As I write this I'm feeling a dull ache in my foot, after a few days of the foot not bothering me much at all. If I flex my foot, I feel a definite twinge of pain. (Even when it's hardly bothering me, I think I still feel some pain if I do a full foot flex. But I don't flex my foot much, so I'm not sure.)

YANMD, of course, but I'm grasping for advice, here. Would there be any point to taping it, now? If I saw a doctor, what would he probably do? If he x-rayed it and found some little break, would I be looking at a cast? Would he have to re-break the bone, since it's been a while since the original injury?

This problem is annoying, but it's so intermittent that I'd much prefer to ride this out, rather than dealing with some big, expensive doctor visit I absolutely cannot afford right now. A cast or a re-break would seem like a lot to put up with, for the sake of such a piddly, intermittent problem. Is it possible this is just the normal course of healing? Could it just be the muscles, rather than a problem with the bones? If I just leave this alone, will it probably get better, or am I screwing up my stupid foot for life?
posted by Ursula Hitler to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Even if you went to a practitioner they're just going to tell you they *could* do x-rays if you want, but the injury's too old to do anything about. Besides mostly taping splinting would have been the only they'd have done when the injury was new unless your toe were hanging off.

Basically your route is ice it/apply an analgesic when it hurts. You might have to buy expensive shoes if you're walking/standing a lot to avoid the pain as much as possible.
posted by syncope at 4:10 PM on June 15, 2013

When I broke my little toe years ago, all they did was tape it (and it was a COMPOUND FRACTURE) so, yeah. But the issue is if it heals crooked, that could be why you are hurting. I am not a doctor, so at some point, honestly you probably need to go get it checked. But you haven't ruined your toe, in my opinion.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:11 PM on June 15, 2013

You can't afford to not go to the doctor. It will be much more expensive (if it's even possible) to fix if it heals badly than to fix it now. Yes, the doctor may not be able to do more than tell you to tape it, but if it's badly broken, displaced or something, you have a lot of downside in terms of potential long term debilitation.
posted by Jahaza at 4:13 PM on June 15, 2013

Was the bruising concentrated and dark purple-red? You probably broke it. And yeah, a few days is not long enough to keep it taped.

Moving forward: RICE. Rest, ice, compression, elevation. Personally, I'd probably also tape it for a week and see if that makes any difference.

On preview: if it were badly broken or dislocated/displaced, you would know because it would be hurting like bugger all the time.
posted by Specklet at 4:19 PM on June 15, 2013

"Was the bruising concentrated and dark purple-red?"

If I remember correctly, it seemed like the toe itself had a purplish area along one side of the "shaft" (for lack of a better word,) and then there was a wide swatch of gross yellow/green/blue across the top of my foot, in the "knuckle" area. I remember thinking that the bruising mostly seemed focused higher up than where the toe actually hurt.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:42 PM on June 15, 2013

Is the pain just in the toe itself, or in any other part of your foot? Because if you have symptoms beyond the actual toe, you could have a metatarsal fracture, which actually might benefit from casting or other treatment. I'd see a doctor.
posted by decathecting at 4:44 PM on June 15, 2013

IANAD, but I've broken three bones without them being casted. (Last one was my big toe.) I think it takes 6-8 weeks or so for them to heal. I'd retape it just to keep it from banging around, and I'm seconding the RICE advice. Also a soak in warm bath with Epsom salts helped with the pain.

But yeah, I think it just takes longer to heal than a few weeks.
posted by loveyallaround at 4:46 PM on June 15, 2013

Ouch. I have managed similar injuries on several occasions The worst one led to bruising much as you describe and occasional pain for about 3 months. I would ride it out.
posted by BenPens at 4:54 PM on June 15, 2013

In my experience with broken/gross/healing/various foot woes, it just takes a lot longer than one expects for stuff to heal down there. Your feet are a high-traffic area, all that action keeps stuff like a toe break from healing as quickly as, say, a broken finger.
posted by carsonb at 4:55 PM on June 15, 2013

As we grow older, it can take a lot longer to heal than it did years ago. I usually allow 25-50% longer to heal than the doctor or younger friends say it will take.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:03 PM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

My toes are pretty gnarly from breaking them too. There's not a lot to be done and you can manage pain while it heals (which can take months).

The thing is most of us walk on our injuries, so it prolongs the healing time.

Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:35 PM on June 15, 2013

wear bigger shoes than you think you should have to. That's the only thing that helped when I broke my pinkie toe.
posted by lemniskate at 5:35 PM on June 15, 2013

Agreeing that there isn't much to be done for little toes.

Is the swelling and bruising mostly gone? Can you move the toe without pain? (Meaning, do the joints move properly?)

Then I would, based on my experience with broken bones, say that you are doing fine. If memory serves, a sort of scab forms around a healing bone that takes a while to go away. (The callous referenced here, I think.) So the end result is that your foot is a little wider in the little toe area and will be for a while. Wear looser fitting shoes and perhaps tape it to keep it from flopping around inside the shoe.
posted by gjc at 5:56 PM on June 15, 2013

I did this to my little toe when I had a job working alongside a number of orthopedists. Every one said tape it if it makes you feel better, but mostly, alternate cold and hot (it might be too late for that now) AND that it could take months to heal completely -- which was the case. And they all said x-rays were not indicated --- BUT if it's not just the toe that's hurting and bruising, maybe you should go to the doctor!
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:09 PM on June 15, 2013

I would ride it out too...I don't think a doctor is going to be able to do anything about this unless they do something complicated like re-break it and set it...if they even do that.

I broke my middle toe back in December and it still hurts...probably because once I was able to walk again(only couldn't b/c I sprained my foot at the same time) I found myself accidentally slamming the toe into things fairly often. Sigh...

The doctor only did x-rays because I was afraid I had broken my foot.

tl;dr I wouldn't worry about it too much.
posted by fromageball at 7:45 PM on June 15, 2013

When I stubbed my toe badly, it was actually the bone behind the toe (metatarsal?) that broke, and it took a solid 6+ weeks to stop hurting. It wasn't even a bad break, more like a "greenstick" fracture from what they described. The clinic did an X-ray, told me to tape it and ice it if that helped, take ibuprofen as needed, elevate it when I could, and gave me a "boot" that was basically a flat rigid sole with velcro straps. They said rigid shoes are better than flexible ones; you don't want the toe to have to bend back and forth with every step while it's healing. If I were you, I think I'd just go easy on it for a few more weeks, as long as it's not hurting terribly.
posted by beandip at 7:48 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone else. This sounds like what happened when I stubbed my toe bad, and again when I dropped a prop sword directly onto one of my toes (that was the day that the entire cast heard me drop the f-bomb for the first time). The rule of thumb I heard is that if the bruising lasts more than a couple days, then it's a break. But with a break in the little toe, at the....tip of the toe, there's not much more you can do other than tape it to the toe next to it, and take it easy for a couple weeks.

The fact that the pain sort of comes and goes is also a good sign - it doesn't sound like there's much rhyme or reason to what causes it (i.e., sometimes when you walk on it it's okay, and sometimes not), so I'd chalk any instances of pain up to overexertion on a toe that's still healing rather than a sign of a more serious break. (I've had a more serious break in my foot as well, and believe me, there's a difference.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:45 PM on June 15, 2013

Thanks very much for all the advice, folks!

Actually the foot is noticeably worse today than it's been for a while, which is just baffling. I've gone pretty easy on it, and haven't done anything to provoke it. While originally it seemed like the toe itself was the source of the injury, the pain right now seems a bit higher up, I feel it up in the knuckle and down in the ball of the foot. If I had cash to burn I'd definitely get it looked at, just to be safe. But it sounds like I probably don't have the kind of injury that's going to cause lifelong problems if I leave it alone for now, so that's what I'll do. I wish staying off my feet was an option, but my job doesn't work like that. I'm gonna try taping again and some ice, and hope this thing finally heals up already.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:18 PM on June 15, 2013

If you are going to tape, tape it until the break has healed, not just for a week.

Avoid bending around the area as much as possible. You might need some shoes with stiff soles.
posted by yohko at 10:22 PM on June 15, 2013

I'd make a splint from a milk or laundry jug, and tape it to the toe to keep it immobilized. Googling "how to tape a broken toe" has a lot of what look like good answers.
posted by theora55 at 8:10 AM on June 16, 2013

I have broken both big toes and both little toes and by far the little toes hurt worse and for longer. The little toes were painful for about a year. Keep taping it to the next toe. I walked a lot at my job so I went to the doc and got pain meds.
posted by futz at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2013

I broke a toe about a week after you did. I am currently going around in one of those velcro boot things beandip described above, and it definitely feels better in that than in a regular shoe. The doctors told me there wasn't really much else to be done about it other than resting it as much as possible.
posted by naoko at 9:02 PM on June 16, 2013

When I broke my toe in karate a decade ago, in addition to the taping and anti-inflammatories, I got prescribed a hard shoe, which is basically what beandip describes above.

I still had pain off and on for the next 8-10 weeks (it was my second toe, not the little one)--and I will never forget the sensation of bones moving inside my foot--but the hard shoe kept it from too many problems.
posted by telophase at 8:12 AM on June 17, 2013

I have broken my pinky toe. I saw a doctor and had it x-rayed and the whole deal (all the bruising i had was on my foot, so I was concerned I may have broken more than my toe, but I didn't). They told me wear stiff soled sneakers for a minimum of six weeks, and was told not to bother with taping.

FWIW, I saw an orthapedist a year ago about my toe because it's been 5 years and my toe still swells up and hurts from time to time. I got an x-ray and he said it healed fine, but that toes can cause discomfort for a long time once broken, and that there's really nothing that can be done for a toe. Ice and elevating it helps.
posted by inertia at 8:19 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just an update, on the off chance that anybody is searching for broken toe info on Ask Metafiliter and they find this thread... my toe eventually healed up, without going to the doctor and getting a cast, or any of that. I still don't know if it was broken or what the heck.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:57 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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