The structure of the foot is complex, consisting of bones, muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues. Of the 26 bones in the foot, 19 are toe bones (phalanges) and metatarsal bones (the long bones in the midfoot). Fractures of the toe and metatarsal bones are common and require evaluation by a specialist. A foot and ankle surgeon should be seen for proper diagnosis and treatment, even if initial treatment has been received in an emergency room.
What Is a Fracture?
A fracture is a break in the bone. Fractures can be divided into two categories: traumatic fractures and stress fractures.
Traumatic fractures (also called acute fractures) are caused by a direct blow or impact, such as seriously stubbing your toe. Traumatic fractures can be displaced or non-displaced. If the fracture is displaced, the bone is broken in such a way that it has changed in position (dislocated).
Signs and symptoms of a traumatic fracture include:
Stress fractures are tiny, hairline breaks that are usually caused by repetitive stress. Stress fractures often afflict athletes who, for example, too rapidly increase their running mileage. They can also be caused by an abnormal foot structure, deformities, or osteoporosis. Improper footwear may also lead to stress fractures. Stress fractures should not be ignored. They require proper medical attention to heal correctly.
Symptoms of stress fractures include:
Consequences of Improper Treatment
Some people say that “the doctor can’t do anything for a broken bone in the foot.” This is usually not true. In fact, if a fractured toe or metatarsal bone is not treated correctly, serious complications may develop. For example:
Treatment of Toe Fractures
Fractures of the toe bones are almost always traumatic fractures. Treatment for traumatic fractures depends on the break itself and may include these options:
Treatment of Metatarsal Fractures
Breaks in the metatarsal bones may be either stress or traumatic fractures. Certain kinds of fractures of the metatarsal bones present unique challenges.
For example, sometimes a fracture of the first metatarsal bone (behind the big toe) can lead to arthritis. Since the big toe is used so frequently and bears more weight than other toes, arthritis in that area can make it painful to walk, bend, or even stand.
Another type of break, called a Jones fracture, occurs at the base of the fifth metatarsal bone (behind the little toe). It is often misdiagnosed as an ankle sprain, and misdiagnosis can have serious consequences since sprains and fractures require different treatments. Your foot and ankle surgeon is an expert in correctly identifying these conditions as well as other problems of the foot.
Treatment of metatarsal fractures depends on the type and extent of the fracture, and may include:
For more information on broken toes, listen to the Broken Toes podcast.