“How long does it take for a sprained toe to heal?”
If you’re a regular runner, chances are you’ve asked this question at some point during your exercise journey.
Running isn’t just a healthy activity, but it’s one of the workouts that can also be very fun to do.
That said, running does come with its fair share of conditions and injuries simply because it’s an exercise that depends so much on the legs and feet, putting them under the majority of the workout stress.
According to a 2015 study, the foot is 39.3% likely to be the site of a running injury. This is why we decided to dedicate today’s article to one of the most common injuries in runners – a sprained toe.
We’re discussing its symptoms, diagnosis, causes, treatment, and prevention. Let’s get started!
What Is a Sprained Toe?
Before we get down to business, we should first explain what a sprained toe is. Whenever you encounter the word “sprain”, your mind should immediately connect it to a ligament.
As such, a sprain is when a ligament is injured. But what exactly is a ligament?
Well, there are tissues responsible for attaching muscles to bones called “tendons” and there are tissues that serve to connect bones to other bones referred to as “ligaments”. Both tendons and ligaments are present inside joints.
The joints in your toes are the reason you’re able to move the digits to walk, jump, jog, run, and so on. There are 3 types of joints located in the toes:
- A joint that links the toe to the foot. It’s called the MTP (metatarsophalangeal) joint.
- A middle joint that connects the top of the toe to its bottom. It’s called the PIP (proximal interphalangeal) joint.
- A joint closest to the tip of the toe that links the top part to the middle section. It’s called the DIP (distal phalangeal) joint.
If you’re diagnosed with a sprained toe, this means that one of the ligaments in one of these joints is injured due to being either overstretched or torn.
All of your toes contain all 3 joints mentioned above, except the big toe as it only possesses the MTP and the PIP joints.
Unlike a sprained toe, if you’re suffering from a broken toe, then the injury is related to the bone and not the joint. We’ll talk more about the differences between the two injuries later on.
What Does a Sprained Toe Feel Like?
The symptoms of a sprained toe differ depending on how severe the injury is.
One important thing to notice here is that while you’ll feel pain from a sprained toe, you’ll still be able to use the injured toe. This means you’ll be able to put the pressure of your body weight on it and walk.
That said, let’s have a look at some of the most common symptoms of a sprained toe:
- Pain that extends to the whole toe and sometimes even the area surrounding it.
- Difficulty in moving the toe but it’s still possible.
- Throbbing or tenderness, which feels as if there’s a “beat” in the toe.
- Noticeable swelling of the toe.
- Bruising and slight discoloration.
In addition to the symptoms above, if your sprain is severe, you may feel a tear at the moment it happens.
What Causes a Sprained Toe?
As we mentioned earlier, a sprained toe occurs when a ligament in a toe joint gets overstretched or torn.
This can happen when you hyperextend your toe farther than its normal range or bend it too far.
Any of these events can commonly occur in sports and physical activities such as running, jogging, cycling, and so on. Here are a few examples:
- You could be running and accidentally get your toe caught on an obstacle along the track, leading a joint in your toe to twist or overextend. This can instantly injure a ligament.
- You could be running and accidentally stub your toe on the ground. This can cause your toe to overextend under your foot, resulting in an injury to one of its ligaments.
- You could be running and accidentally trip on something on the ground, causing a toe to bend down below the foot and beyond the natural range of the joint.
Diagnosing a Sprained Toe
First things first, if you suspect you’re suffering from a toe sprain, you should schedule a visit to your doctor right away.
Don’t wait too long to avoid unnecessary complications and make sure it’s not another toe injury such as a dislocated toe, a broken toe, or a turf toe injury.
That said, here’s how the process of diagnosing a toe sprain goes:
- Your doctor will begin by asking you to move your toe in multiple ways to see whether or not they cause you to feel pain.
Here, you should be honest about the painful movements and the severity of the pain to help your physician identify the exact site of the injury and the degree of your sprain.
- After that, your physician may grab your toe and deliberately move it in certain directions to get an idea of the extent of the sprain and the level of further foot pain. This also helps determine how stable your toe joint is.
- Depending on your doctor’s findings from the previous tests, they may ask for additional imaging tests such as an X-ray or an MRI to get a better idea of the damage in your ligament and rule out any other foot injury.
An essential element in diagnosing toe sprains is determining their grade.
Depending on the severity of the sprain, your physician will assign your injury to one of the following grades:
Also known as a mild sprain, here the toe ligament features some micro-tearing (minor tears). This is the least painful grade with symptoms including mild swelling and throbbing.
Also known as a moderate sprain, here the toe ligament is partially torn. The pain is more noticeable than grade 1 with symptoms including moderate tenderness and swelling.
Also known as a severe sprain, here the toe ligament features a complete or severe tear.
You’re likely to experience severe pain and there’s a high chance of joint instability.
Additionally, all the swelling, bruising, and tenderness symptoms are a lot more significant.
Sprained vs Broken Toe
Differentiating between a sprained and a broken toe is also necessary since they’re often confused with one another. The two injuries vary in their symptoms as well as their treatment and recovery as follows:
We established above that a sprained toe is an injury of a ligament in a toe joint. On the other hand, having a broken toe means that a bone in your toe is fractured.
Unlike a sprain where you can still move your toe and walk on it, a broken toe will make you unable to move it or at least make its range of motion almost non-existent.
Walking on a broken toe will hurt so much that you won’t want to try for more than a couple of seconds.
Swelling and bruising will occur but will last longer than in toe sprains without any degree of improvement.
Additionally, some patients feel a burn at the site of the injury.
Treatment and Recovery
We’ll discuss the details of treating a sprained toe in the next section, but we can safely say that treating a sprained ligament is much simpler and quicker than treating a broken bone.
As such, if you’re suspecting a broken toe injury, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
The faster you get a doctor to diagnose it and start a treatment plan, the bigger your chances of preventing complications such as hammertoe and bone spurs.
For a broken toe, treatment options depend on the severity of the fracture as follows:
- If you’re dealing with a stress fracture (also known as a hairline fracture), you’ll have to stop whatever activity that may have caused it or may make it worse. Using crutches may be required for a few weeks as well as the administration of anti-inflammatory drugs to ease the pain.
- Less than significant fractures may only require wearing an immobilizer that ties the broken toe to an adjacent toe for support or wearing a cast.
- More serious fractures may require a medical procedure where the physician resets the location of the toe. Heads up — this procedure is quite painful.
- Some cases will require the administration of antibiotics to treat or prevent infections in case the skin was pierced by the bone.
How to Treat a Sprained Toe
It’s not all bad news when it comes to a toe sprain! Luckily, most cases of these injuries only require proper care at home to get better and heal completely.
The keyword you need to remember here is RICE, which is a popular treatment strategy that involves the following practices:
This one is easy; all you need to do is keep pressure off of the injured toe. This includes taking a break from running as well as other activities that may cause the sprain to worsen.
If walking on the injured foot hurts, consider refraining from walking for a couple of days or using a crutch if necessary.
Icing the injured toe can effectively alleviate swelling and tenderness. Ice packs or even frozen peas can do the trick!
Wrapping the sprained toe can also bring down the swelling and provide extra support to keep it from moving and causing pain.
Check that the compression tape isn’t too tight to avoid aggravating the injured area.
Last but not least, you should put up the injured foot to promote circulation at the sprained toe. This can boost healing and reduce swelling.
When Is It Necessary to Seek Medical Attention?
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication and pain relievers (such as ibuprofen) coupled with proper home care can be enough to heal your sprained toe. But it’s necessary to visit your doctor if:
- You suffer from other health conditions.
- The pain is too severe and persistent.
How Long Does a Sprained Toe Take To Heal?
Typically, it takes between 4 to 6 weeks for a sprained toe to completely recover. But the more severe the sprain, the longer it’ll take to heal.
How to Prevent a Sprained Toe
The following are a few tips to help you avoid toe sprains as a runner:
- Stretch to warm up before runs and cool down after runs.
- Make sure you wear dedicated running shoes of the proper size.
- Go for runs on smooth surfaces.
Final Thoughts On How Long Does It Take for a Sprained Toe to Heal
There you have it, a complete guide on toe sprains. To answer the question “how long does it take for a sprained toe to heal? “It should recover within 4 to 6 weeks.