How to Tell the Difference Between a Sprained Toe and Broken Toe

Stubbing your toe against a piece of furniture is painful. It’s the kind of minor event that can cause even the most soft-spoken of individuals to yell out in pain. Yet, not all toe injuries are created equal. Some are mild, while others are severe. Some are obviously caused by a specific trauma; while others are a result of putting too much pressure on the feet.

If you’re in pain, you want it to stop as soon as possible. But how can you really know whether you’ve sprained or broken your toe?

Sprained Toe vs. Broken Toe Symptoms

Symptoms of a Sprained Toe

If you have a sprained toe: If you have a sprained toe, what you’ve injured is actually the ligaments around the toe. While painful, your toe will still remain functional. This means you can still walk and put your body weight on it. However, you may also feel throbbing, tenderness, or increased pain while moving the injured toe.

Symptoms of a Broken Toe

If you have a broken toe: A broken toe is a fractured bone. This type of injury results in either a very limited range of motion or even the inability to move the toe at all. In addition, the toe will swell and bruise. It’ll hurt to walk and the pain and swelling will persist for days without any signs of improvement. You may also feel a burning sensation.

Sprained Toe vs. Broken Toe Treatment & Healing Time

Sprained Toe Treatment and Healing Time

If you have a sprained toe: A mild sprain can be treated with home remedies, such as icing the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, taking time to rest, and keeping the foot elevated.

If the injury is more severe (e.g., if you have a torn ligament), you should tape the injured toe to the toe next to it and wear a walking boot. The toe should be fully healed within three to six weeks. If you’re still in pain after that time frame, you may have a more serious injury and should seek medical attention.

Broken Toe Treatment and Healing Time

If you have a broken toe: If you have a broken toe, you need to seek medical attention to avoid complications such as deformity, bone spurs, or hammer toe. Treatment options may include taping the injured toe to the one next to it to provide it with support and keep it immobilized, or wearing a cast or boot.

If the fracture is significant, your doctor may have to reset the toe’s placement, which will be painful. If bone pierced the skin, you may need antibiotics to prevent infection.

If the break is a hairline fracture, you’ll have to take a break from the activity that caused it. Your doctor may also recommend using crutches for six to eight weeks, as well as prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to help alleviate the pain.

What Causes Stress Fractures?

Since stress fractures develop over time, the affected individual may ignore the pain, thinking it’s something minor and that it’ll go away on its own. It’s important to note that if you’ve had pain for several days, and the pain increases while exercising or doing any other strenuous physical activity, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Left untreated, the pain from a stress fracture can become debilitating and cause even worse damage to the injured bone.

There are several factors that could contribute to a stress fracture, such as:

  • Suddenly increasing the intensity and duration of exercise
  • Repetitive movements without adequate shoe support or form
  • Having an underlying medical condition, such as osteoporosis or arthritis
  • A change in surface (e.g. running on a track vs. running on a sidewalk)
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