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 certainly know when you’ve sprained or broken your toe, but you may not be able to determine if it is a sprain or a fracture immediately.

A broken toe can have ongoing consequences and if you do not attend to it immediately. While most toe injuries are painful, the damage may be no worse than a sprain. Either way, it is advisable to take action. Many people fail to address a toe injury properly and wrongly assume that a broken toe is only a sprain. A fractured toe, however, should be taken care of immediately.

They are two very different injuries, so need to be treated differently, too. Learning how to recognize the symptoms for both conditions is vitally important – because you don’t want to leave a fractured toe unattended!

In this guide, we will take an in-depth look at differences between a sprained toe and a broken toe. We will explain what symptoms to look for to determine the extent of your injury. We will also discuss what actions you can take to ease the pain and reduce the swelling.

How to Tell If Your Toe is Broken or Bruised

There are several similar symptoms for both injuries which can complicate matters. The critical difference between the two is if there is any sign of bleeding under the toe, but this is not always immediately evident. You should also make the distinction between the sight of the 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 usually appear as a black, bulbous “blood blister.” The toenail may also turn black and will take several months to disappear as the nail grows out.

The only other way to differentiate a sprain from a broken toe 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 with feeling intense pain.

What Are the Symptoms of a Broken Toe?

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

What Are the Symptoms of a Sprained Toe?

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

Can You Move a Broken Toe?

In short, no, you can’t move a broken toe. This is important to note because mobility is one of the significant 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 feel quite a lot of pain when you wiggle.

how do I know if my toe is broken or just bruised?

Is My Big Toe Broken?

Regardless of whether you sprain your big toe or break it, you will feel an 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 not uncommon 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 fundamental difference is the recovery time. Again, this 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 certainly should be able to wiggle your toe after a day or two, which as mentioned above is a critical difference between a sprain and a fracture.

However, don’t rush back into action. You should allow the joint to rest for a couple of weeks before putting too much pressure on it – especially if you play sports or partake in 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 treated at home.

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

In cases where 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 will become severely deformed and affect your ability to run or walk.

A deformed toe will also 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 as you get older.

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

What Treatments Are Available for a Broken Toe?

The definition of a broken toe is when the bone is fractured. In such circumstances, you should seek immediate medical care because a broken toe can result in possible complications if it is not treated correctly.

When you injure your big toe, the first thing to do is determine whether it is broken or sprained. The symptoms of a broken toe are internal bleeding, you will not be able to move your toe, and the bone may be dislocated.

In the immediate aftermath of a toe trauma, it may not be clear whether you have broken your toe. If the tell-tale symptoms mentioned above are not present, you may need to wait a while until you can properly check the symptoms.

If you have suffered a sprain, there is probably no need for you to seek medical attention. There is little a doctor can do with toe injuries anyway. Sprains can be cared for at home (see below how to treat a sprained toe).

However, you should test the symptoms because corrective treatment for a broken big toe differs significantly from a sprained toe.

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 suffered from 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, the first thing you should do is try to immobilize the bone so that it does not become deformed. Medical practitioners do this 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.

  • Casting

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 properly.

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

  • Repositioning

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 probably 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?

Treatments for a Sprained Toe

A sprain is not as dangerous. However, if you do not take the right corrective treatment, any damage to your toes can cause complications when walking, running, and even your gait further along the line. The damage is only minor – though you probably won’t feel that way at first!

The good news is that treating a toe sprain can be performed relatively easily at home and the recovery time is much quicker than a break. 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 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 otherwise 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 – so don’t wear shoes that cause tightness around your toe.

The best option is not to out weight on it at all, but 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 in the healing process for a sprained big toe, you may want to take anti-inflammatory tablets to help reduce the swelling.

The best cure for a sprained toe is plenty of 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.

If you play sports or partake in regular exercise, do not rush back into your usual workout routine. You need to give foot injuries sufficient time to recover and properly heal.

Just because the pain has subsided, it doesn’t mean your toe has fully recovered. Injuries need nursing back to full health gradually and carefully. 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

In the section above, 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.

Remember the RICE protocol. After rest and ice is compression, and this is how you should bandage an injured toe.

You will need the following items:

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

should i go to hospital for a broken toe?

Step-by-Step Guide to Wrapping a Sprain Toe

Step 1

Before wrapping a sprained toe, clean the skin with an antiseptic solution to remove any dirt, gravel or blood if there is any. Ideally, you should use an antiseptic or antibacterial soap from the pharmacy.

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

Step 2

Strap the injured up against the one alongside it. 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 a 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 a couple of times. Start from the ball of the foot and come over the big toe and down back under the anchor toe.

  • Important: 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 or taking a bath. 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. You should 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 that have suffered 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 of your toe 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 at first, 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 okay.