Foot Ailments

Sprained Big Toe vs. Broken Big Toe – What’s the Difference?

When you stub your big toe, the pain is excruciating no matter how much damage has been done. You’ll know when you’ve sprained or broken your big toe, but you may not be able to determine if it is just a sprain or fracture until several hours after the injury has been sustained.

Is my big toe broken or sprained? The symptoms of a broken toe are internal bleeding (hematoma), an inability to move your toe, and the bone may appear to be dislocated. You may need to wait for up to 3 hours to verify the symptoms. There is little that a doctor can do for a sprain, so any pain and bruising can be treated at home.

While all toe injuries can be excruciating, the damage may be no worse than a sprain. Many people fail to address a toe injury properly and wrongly assume that a broken toe is only a sprain. A fractured toe, however, needs medical attention to prevent future complications.

Broken vs. Sprained Big Toes

The critical difference is bleeding under the toe, but this is not always immediately evident. You should also make the distinction between blood on the outside of the toe and internal bleeding. A cut will produce blood on the outside, but this does not necessarily mean your toe is broken.

The most precise way to identify a broken toe is when blood appears underneath the skin due to trauma to the toe. The appearance of a hematoma is a surefire indication that the toe is broken.

A hematoma is a build-up of blood underneath skin or toenail. It will appear as a black, bulbous “blood blister.” The toenail may turn black and will take months to disappear as the nail grows out.

The only other way to tell a sprain and a broken toe apart is mobility. If you have broken your toe, you will not be able to move it. However, depending on the extent of your injury, the resulting stiffness from a sprain may also mean you can’t wiggle your toe without feeling intense pain.

Symptoms of a Broken Toe

  • Bleeding (hematoma)
  • Bruising
  • Unable to move the toe
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Burning or tingling

Symptoms of a Sprained Toe

  • Bruising
  • Pain
  • Limited movement in the toe
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Throbbing

Can You Move a Broken Toe?

You can’t move a broken toe. This is vital to note because mobility is one of the main differences.

Ordinarily, you will still have a little movement in a sprained big toe, although you may need to allow it to rest for several hours before you can move it. Even then, you should expect to experience pain when you wiggle your toe.

should i go to hospital for a broken toe?

Is My Big Toe Broken?

Regardless of whether you sprain your big toe or break it, you will feel intense throbbing pain. Any severe trauma to the foot will also result in swelling.

In the absence of blood under the skin, or if the pain of a sprain is preventing movement, it can be difficult to diagnose whether a big toe is broken or not immediately.

When the throbbing is also accompanied by burning or tingling, there’s a strong chance that you’ve broken your toe. It is common for the injured person to hear the bone crack at the time of impact.

A bad break will also disfigure the toe so that it juts out at an unusual angle. A sprained toe will not appear dislocated although it will swell and probably come out in a nasty-looking bruise.

The other big difference is recovery time. Again, it would take several days to ascertain the full extent of the injury. It also depends on the severity of the injury.

A broken toe can take up to four to six weeks to heal. A sprain will start getting better in a few days. You should be able to wiggle your toe after a day or two.

However, don’t rush back into action. Allow the joint to rest for a couple of weeks before putting too much pressure on it, especially if you play sports or exercise.

Should I Go to Hospital for a Broken Toe?

When you break a bone in your body, the immediate reaction is to go to the hospital. However, a broken big toe is not always that serious and can be self-treated at home.

It is best practice to have the injury checked by a doctor or podiatrist. This is vital if you get a hematoma, as the blood clot on your big toe could cause complications further down the line.

When the toe is severely broken, you should go to a hospital so that the fracture can be corrected. If you do not reset the structure of the bone, it may become severely deformed and affect your ability to run or walk.

A deformed toe will affect your quality of life when you get older. If the deformed toe impacts other joints, it will alter your gait, and you could develop other problems with your feet, ankles, and hips.

When you visit a hospital with a suspected broken toe, the doctor will take an x-ray to assess the extent of the fracture. They will put the toe back in place and restructure it using a cast or surgery.

How to Treat a Broken Big Toe

The toe is medically defined as broken when the bone is fractured. You should seek immediate medical care because a broken toe can have cause complications if it is not treated correctly.

1) Medication

You will experience excruciating pain. Take a painkiller to nullify the throbbing.

Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, Advil or Tylenol should suffice, although your doctor may prescribe something stronger.

2) R.I.C.E.

The standard medical procedure for treating a broken big toe is R.I.C.E – rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Even if you have a minor break, the R.I.C.E. procedure is sometimes all you need to heal.

3) Strap the Toe

When you experience a fracture, should do is try to immobilize the bone so that it does not become deformed. This is done in one of three ways depending on the severity of the break:

Buddy Taping

A simple fracture can be strapped to the neighboring toe with tape. The uninjured toe acts as a splint and helps to keep the broken toe in its usual position.

Place some gauze underneath the tape to prevent your toes from rubbing together. Otherwise, it will cause irritation and probable blisters. You should also wrap a bandage around the toe to prevent it from getting dirty, and fashion a strap around the heel to keep your big toe straight.


In the case of a displaced fracture, your doctor will probably recommend stabilizing your toe in a cast. This is because the bone needs to be reset and held in place for it to heal correctly.

Before plaster is packed around your toe, you will probably be given medication to numb the pain.


There are instances when the broken fragments of bone are too splintered to fit back together correctly. In such circumstances, your doctor needs to manipulate the fragments back to their rightful positions.

This is usually performed by cutting through your skin and performing a minor surgical operation on your toe to manually reset the bones back into position.

4) Surgery

The most severe toe fractures – where the toe cannot be repositioned – will require corrective surgery. This requires putting pins, screws or plates into your big toe to force it back into its natural position and keep it straight as it heals.

Should you have to undergo surgery, you will be given a post-surgery shoe or boot to wear. They are fitted with a solid sole which allows you to walk without putting weight on your toe.

is my big toe broken?

How to Treat a Sprained Big Toe

A sprain is not dangerous. However, if you do not take the right corrective treatment, any damage to your toes can cause complications when walking and running. It can alter your gait.

Treating a toe sprain can be performed at home and the recovery time is much quicker than it is for a broken big toe. When you first damage your toe, you should take the following course of action.

1) Stop the Swelling

Use the R.I.C.E method (see above) to reduce the swelling – rest, ice, compression, elevation. This will reduce the amount of blood getting into your toe and nullify some of the throbbing pain.

2) Immobilize Your Toe

Toe injuries rarely require corrective treatment, such as surgery or casts. However, you still need to stabilize the toe and hold it firmly in its natural position so that it heals properly.

The best way to secure your big toe is to wrap it with gauze and fasten it to your second toe with budding tape. As extra security and protection, strap a bandage around the big toe and create a strap by wrapping the bandage around your ankle.

Be careful not to wrap the toes too tightly together as this will cause irritation and possible blisters – and a blister is the last thing you want on a sprained toe.

3) Avoid Wearing Shoes

A sprained big toe needs space and room to heal. Don’t wear shoes that cause tightness around your toe.

Don’t put weight on it. If you do need to go out, wear open-toed sandals with a strap across the foot and around the heel to keep your foot secure and in place.

4) Anti-Inflammatory Tablets

Although medication is not essential for a sprained big toe, you may want to take anti-inflammatory tablets to help reduce the swelling and redness.

The cure for a sprained toe is rest. Keep your leg in an upright position and limit the amount of pressure you put on your injured foot. The less walking you do, the quicker your big toe will heal.

Just because the pain has subsided, it doesn’t mean your toe has fully recovered. Injuries need nursing back to full health gradually. You don’t always have to let a toe injury stop you from keeping fit, but refrain from doing any exercises that put pressure on your toe.

How to Wrap a Sprained Big Toe

We mentioned the correct cause of action for a sprain is to immobilize the injured toe. You can do this at home without having to visit a doctor once you’ve applied some ice and reduced the swelling.

You will need the following items to bandage an injured big toe:

  • Anti-biotic solution
  • Gauze or cotton
  • Adhesive tape
  • A small pair of scissors
  • Bandage

should i go to hospital for a broken toe?

Wrapping a Sprain Toe (A Step-by-Step Guide)

Step 1

Clean the skin with an antiseptic solution to remove any dirt, gravel or blood. Ideally, you should use an antiseptic or antibacterial soap from the pharmacy. This will reduce the risk of a bacterial infection to the big toe.

The best way to apply antiseptics is to daub the solution on to a piece of cotton wool and wipe it over the skin. If there is a cut on the toe, apply a small band-aid before wrapping the toes.

Step 2

An injured big toe will be strapped against the second toe to anchor the bone in the right position.

Take a piece of gauze, or cotton wool and place it over the skin. This prevents the two toes from rubbing against one another and causing skin irritation. Stick the gauze to the toe with some tape.

Then cut off a slightly longer piece of tape and wrap it around the injured toe and the anchor toe. Start from the ball of the foot and come over the big toe and down back under the anchor toe.

Don’t wrap the toes too tightly together as this will cause friction and possible blisters. Wrap the tape, so there is a little give and leaves a natural gap.

Step 3

To provide a sprained toe with more stability and protection, strap it up with a bandage.

Wind the bandage around the toe several times – not too tightly but securely – then wrap the bandage around the ankle to fashion a cradle that will hold the injured toe in position.

Step 4

Change the bandage after showering. The strapping tape itself will hold for a couple of days but should be replaced every few days or sooner if it does become too loose after getting wet.

If there is an open wound on the injured toe, clean this every time you change the strapping to prevent it from becoming infected.

Keep sprained toes wrapped every day until you have fully recovered – around 4-6 weeks.

Why Does My Broken Toe Keep Popping?

During the recovery stages of a broken toe, you may notice the bone pops or cracks more often than it used to. This is quite normal. It’s not unusual for bones to crack anyway.

The popping sound you hear is due to gasses in the synovial fluid being pushed out from the joints. It happens naturally with the movement of your tendons and ligaments.

People with a broken toe may experience a higher frequency of popping or cracking. This is due to the tightening of ligament and tendons because the joints have been immobile for some time.

The joints are where your bones are placed together. They have small pockets which produce synovial fluid to help lubricate the area, so your limbs flex easily.

Synovial fluid also contains a build-up of gases; oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The cracking you hear is merely the gases escaping from the little pockets when the joint is stretched.

Once you become more mobile on your toe following injury, you should find the popping becomes less frequent as the toe joint returns to normal. However, if the popping is persistent even was you are back in action, you may want to have it checked.

The popping is a result of inertia in the toe. So, it should settle down once you are mobile again. If not, there could be an underlying problem which may lead to inflammation that causes irreversible changes to the muscles.

Cracking joints may appear harmless, but when the joints and tendons persistently pop, it could lead to hypermobility in your joints. If the popping is accompanied by pain, seek medical advice.

A sprained toe and a broken toe have similar symptoms. However, a broken toe usually requires an enhanced corrective treatment and should be attended to by medical professionals.

This is especially the case when the bone is fractured. A severely fractured bone should be taken care of immediately as it could affect your quality of life as you get older.

However, in many cases, home remedies for treating a sprained toe vs. a mildly broken toe will suffice. Providing you follow the RICE principle, you should be just fine.