Stubbed your toe? It may be more serious than you think

June 28, 2018 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • If toe pain doesn’t go away, it can be the sign of a broken bone--know the signs.

  • You can often treat a broken toe yourself, but it’s best to get it checked out first.

  • A Providence physician explains why you shouldn’t ignore serious toe pain.

For many of us, the pain of hurting our toes, though uncomfortable and jarring, is most often temporary. However, it can be difficult to tell sometimes if this simple injury is more complicated than you think.

It’s hard to believe that a bone as small as the one in your toe could cause so much pain when broken. Often referred to as a toe fracture, broken toes are most commonly the result of trauma or injury and can also be caused by repetitive movements such as those in sports. 

If you’ve ever fallen down the stairs, tripped over clutter, or dropped something heavy on your toe, your stubbed toe may actually be broken if it is:

  • Red and bruised
  • Extremely painful
  • Hard to walk on
  • Stiff, swollen, and feeling hot

In more serious cases, you may notice:

  • Bleeding or a split in the toenail
  • A bone protruding through the skin
  • Change in skin tone to blue or grey
  • Any kind of deformity

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, contact a medical professional immediately. They will likely take an x-ray of the fracture and determine whether they need to reset the bone.


If your doctor determines you can apply self-treatment, help mitigate the swelling by icing the affected area and be sure to elevate the foot and avoid any pressure to the broken toe. This might mean staying off your feet and not wearing constricting shoes for a few days.

When cared for correctly, a broken toe can heal in about four to six weeks. Your doctor may also recommend that you pick up some pain medication as well as try buddy taping.

Buddy taping is where you tape your broken toe to the toe next to it. To do this:

  • Place a small piece of gauze or cotton between the broken toe and the toe next to it to prevent blistering.
  • Loosely wrap the toes together.
  • Monitor the way the toes feel taped together – if the toe starts to hurt or you notice swelling, the tape may be applied too tightly.
  • If the toe hurts regardless of how loose the tape is, remove the buddy taping altogether.

Be sure to check in with your doctor if you feel your symptoms worsening during this period.

Complications of an untreated broken toe

Treatment at home will heal a broken toe in most cases. However, when left untreated a broken toe can lead to complications. Extreme cases may require surgery.

  • Infection – If your toe injury is harsh enough to break the skin, there’s a chance of bacteria infecting the broken bone. Also known as osteomyelitis, this infection is caused by a staph bacteria and can result in loss in range of motion and swelling around the bone. Depending on the severity of the infection, your doctor may have to remove the bone.
  • Compound fracture – Repeated stress to an already broken bone can only make it worse, meaning that your simple toe fracture has the potential to turn into a compound fracture where the bone pierces through the skin. This also puts you at risk for infection.
  • Osteoarthritis – A degenerative disease, osteoarthritis is a chronic condition of the joints caused by cartilage degeneration. Most people with this illness experience pain and swelling in the joints. In the case of an untreated broken toe, this can result in difficulty walking and general foot pain as you age.

Find a doctor

If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory to find the right Providence physician for you. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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