Your Personal PT, Rachel Tavel, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) at Shift Wellness in NYC, so she knows how to get your body back on track when it’s out of line. In this weekly series, she gives you tips on how to feel better, get stronger, and train smarter.
Walking in circles around your home during quarantine? With nowhere to go, nobody to see, and no room to move, these strange times have created prime toe-stubbing conditions.
A stubbed toe happens to everyone at some point (and for some of us, more than we’d like to admit). The injury usually happens out of nowhere, and once it does it can make even the toughest man scream.
A stubbed toe usually occurs when you are not paying attention, you’re rushing, or you make a spacial miscalculation in a crowded room. If you find yourself trying to transform one part of your home into a work-from-home-office or gym, then you might be setting yourself up for a toe disaster. We get used to our surroundings and have a general sense of where things are, but once we move everything around (which is happening a lot these days, given the circumstances), one wrong move and this little body part you rarely think about will cause you a shocking, sudden jolt of pain that makes you blurt out expletives you’ve never used before.
But what really happens when you stub a toe?
Panuwat Dangsungnoen / EyeEmGetty Images
Technically, a stubbed toe usually occurs to the big toe (or hallux), which protrudes further out than the other toes. When this toe collides head-on with another object (usually a firm or fixed object like a piece of furniture or a wall), a compressive force is sent through the joints of the toe that light up your pain center and make you reflexively and rapidly pull away. The result: pain, possibly swelling and/or difficulty walking, and soreness that might last several days.
Depending on specifics of the injury, it could be a minor sprain or even as bad as a fracture. You’ll want to monitor your symptoms to determine whether or not to seek out medical care. If you notice the toe is bent to the side or deformed in some way with the added element of pain and swelling, you may have fractured it. If you are unable to move the toe, it could indicate a fracture, damage to the joint capsule or a ligament tear. In most cases, the toe will become temporarily inflamed but will heal on its own.
That said, no matter what the specific injury is, begin with these go-to moves. If your pain doesn’t improve within a day or two, then you might want to see an MD for possible imaging.
Rest. It might seem obvious, but if you have pain with walking and you keep putting pressure through that toe, you’re not helping. Walking requires extension of the big toe and hinging at the metatarsophalangeal joint (where that big toe knuckle is), which can often be painful after a toe stubbing incident. Repeatedly moving through that motion with the added pressure of your body weight over it can irritate the inflamed tissue. While you want to maintain mobility through this joint, listen to your body if it’s painful and cut back on your 10,000 steps until pain and inflammation have reduced.
Ice. If you have swelling in the big toe area, wrap an ice pack around it and elevate your foot above heart level for about 15 minutes 3 times per day.
Move (gently). Give your toes a wiggle (scrunching and moving up and down) and make sure you pump your foot (point and flex the foot) while lying down and elevating the foot. This can help reduce swelling while also promoting mobility in the painful joint.
Adjust footwear. Try wearing comfortable sneakers instead of work shoes to avoid pain with walking. If you’re at home, ditch your slippers or any other footwear to go barefoot.
Strengthen it. Once pain and swelling are down you can begin with some gentle strengthening such as active big toe flexion, extension, and foot doming to maintain and build strength in the intrinsic foot musculature.
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