Stubbing your toe is not only physically painful — it can hurt your ego, as you grab your foot in agony like a cartoon character, knowing that you did this to yourself. Fortunately, most of the time this isn’t a serious injury, and you’ll probably feel better relatively soon. But since it can really, really hurt, you may want to make sure that walking into the side of your couch didn’t do any major damage. Here’s what to know about stubbed toes and how to treat them.
Why do stubbed toes cause so much pain?
As it turns out, we do things all the time that could result in a stubbed toe — except that when we’re wearing shoes, we don’t actually feel it, according to Dr. Michael Trepel, a podiatrist in New York City. In fact, a stubbed toe means that “in the course of walking, you hit your forefoot against an object while barefoot or wearing an open-toed shoe,” he tells The Healthy in an interview.
So it makes sense that we get more stubbed toes at home, and especially if we wake up suddenly during the night and can’t really make out our surroundings. The most commonly stubbed toes are the big (also called “great”) toe (hallux) and pinky toe (fifth digit).
But why does the pain it causes seem to be far more extreme than the injury itself?
“There are more dense nerve endings around the toes because you need the tactile sense,” Trepel continues. “Therefore, an injury around the tip of the toe generates more pain than if it happened on the heel.”
How to treat a stubbed toe
It may hurt a lot, but give it a few minutes and wait to see if the pain subsides. If it does, and you don’t see any signs of damage on your toe, skin, nail, or nail bed, then you’re most likely fine and don’t have to do anything else.
But in the event that the pain continues, Dr. Grace Torres-Hodges, a podiatrist practicing in Pensacola, Florida, recommends the classic RICE method — meaning that you rest, ice, compress, and elevate the foot with the injured toe, and take an over-the-counter pain reliever, if needed, she tells The Healthy.
Your toe might start to swell or bruise immediately, or it could happen over the course of the night and following day. It may also take a few days for your toe to turn black and blue, but the time lapse doesn’t mean that your toe is broken or something serious is wrong.
If you hit your toe nail during the stub, bleeding under the nail — aka a subungual hematoma — may occur. “There is a lot of bacteria around the nails, and so there’s a risk of infection with nail bed injuries,” Trepel explains, noting that if this happens, you should make sure to keep the area clean.
When to see a doctor
If, post-stub, your toe looks crooked or deformed in any way, you may need to seek medical attention. And in order to determine whether or not your toe was broken, the doctor may order X-rays.
If your toe is broken, and crooked or deformed, the doctor may give you local anaesthesia and then manipulate the toe back into its original position. After that, it’ll either be taped to the neighbouring toe, or you’ll be fitted for a surgical shoe to keep your foot in place.
In cases where no bone was broken, but the toe continues to be very painful several days later, the doctor will likely suggest keeping with the RICE method until you recover.
If the injury involved a deep cut to your skin, the doctor will treat the wound, which, in some cases, could mean stitches. In situations where your nail or nail bed was injured and a blood blister forms under the nail, Trepel says that a podiatrist should drain it to reduce the risk of losing your nail completely.