Let's Talk About Why Toes Are So Weird

It's time to talk about toes, which should be a relief to anyone who has read the last few articles we've posted about the human body. As always, I'm here to answer the questions you would feel weird asking anybody else.

Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG

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Today's question is from a reader whose toes perplex him.

The toes on your feet? You can probably wiggle all of them, individually. You can probably curl them up so much that you can essentially hide them under your foot. It seems like everyone has this dexterity.

I do not.

I cannot curl my toes, I cannot individually wiggle each toe, I cannot hide them under my foot or curl them up on the carpet, or anything like that!

I don't know why or what it is, I feel like a doctor would just tell me to stretch more, but my big toe can only go so far back before it hurts, and it isn't much. My feet are fine, I don't have a rare condition or anything else I'm aware of that is beyond asthma.

Trying to search this on google leads to nothing, I've never asked my doctor but I've been so curious to know if it is called something and how to get that flexibility in my feet.

Actually, I can't wiggle all of my toes individually. I can move my big toe separately from the other four, but that's it. Are other people able to wiggle their toes more dextrously than the two of us? The Little Mermaid can, but I'm not sure that she counts.

So I asked our questioner if he could send a video to see if his toes are actually newsworthy. I expected I'd just have to break it to him that not all of us have elegant, flexible, ballet-ready toes. But then he showed me this. Nope, that's not normal.

It seems our letter writer can't bend his toes at all. He told me in a later email that he expected the experts I consulted to immediately recognise it: "I would think they would say, 'oh that's a classic case of _______'. I thought this shit would have a name!"

This shit does not have a name. Let's go through the possibilities for what's going on here from scariest to most reassuring, and we'll finish with the ways in which all of us are deficient compared to cartoon mermaids.

The Serious Stuff

"If he had had a traumatic injury or was experiencing severe back pain and suddenly lost the ability to move his toes, I would wonder if he had a spinal cord injury or was severely compressing a nerve, but this does not seem the case for him," says physical therapist Jasmine Marcus.

Another physical therapist, Jason Kart, adds that tarsal tunnel syndrome is one type of nerve compression that can result in problems bending the toes. Problems with the brain could also cause trouble activating muscles in the feet, he says, "but there'll be a bunch of other really weird symptoms going along with that."

Gout and bunions can also cause issues with toe mobility, but none of those seem to be the case either.

Stretching and Strengthening

Marcus asked whether our questioner can bend his toes passively, by grabbing them with his hands and moving them into position. "If they can, his issue is more likely muscular and I would recommend stretching and strengthening the muscles in his feet." Indeed, he can bend them passively, but his big toe doesn't bend as much and tends to make a snapping sound if you force it.

"Keep stretching, but it's possible that something is not quite right with the toe joints, such as arthritis," she says. Kart adds that a small bone spur is also a possibility.

Both agreed that our questioner would do well to try stretching and strengthening the muscles in his feet and lower legs. If your toes don't bend well when you walk, your legs and hips may have to compensate in ways that can lead to injury down the line. And the reverse can also happen: problems in the legs can lead to problems in the feet.

At one point in our conversation, our friend noted that he has never had any other problems with his legs aside from shin splints. "Now the tru[th] comes out!" said Kart. Shin splints are more common in people with flat feet, and flat feet go hand-in-hand (er, foot) with over-stretched muscles on the bottom of the feet. The muscles that should be curling the toes may simply be too weak to do their job.

Whatever the cause, exercises for the toes are likely to help at least a little bit, by increasing strength, flexibility, and maybe a little bit of motor control that can help our letter-writer begin to dream of wiggling his toes. One way to start: toe yoga.

OK, But What's Normal?

Is it really so unusual to have toes that are a little inflexible, or that you can't move individually? That's actually totally normal, says Kart:

As a physical therapist, I see feet all day. There are many variations in structure. Just venture out to the beach and you'll see what I mean. Some of these variations are genetic, some are acquired mechanically from your walking pattern. There is a wide range of normal here.

The lack of ability to wiggle your toes individually is not an issue unless you are a [non-human] primate. Our big toe has some muscles that are dedicated to its movement, so that will move by itself. Unlike the hand, the other toes have basically a few muscles that are dedicated to all of them together. (That's why you can't give your friend the middle toe.)

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