A jammed toe can hurt to high heaven, and the act that jams a toe can potentially break it. So is there a way to tell a jammed toe from a broken one?
The pain of a jammed toe at the time of injury can be breathtaking and linger for days, affecting mobility.
Of course, the pain of a toe bone that breaks is nothing to shove under the rug, either.
The acute or lingering nature of the pain, from either type of injury, does not indicate which injury the patient has sustained.
Broken vs. Jammed Toe
“Sometimes it can be hard to tell acutely, as both can swell and be quite painful initially,” says Jessalynn Adam, MD, who specializes in primary care sports medicine with Orthopedics and Joint Replacement at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.
“If you’re unsure, you should see your doctor to get an X-ray,” continues Dr. Adam.
“Generally, a fractured toe will also be bruised and significantly swollen.
“The good news is both generally heal well, and most toe fractures heal without surgery.
“Protected weight-bearing in a stiff-soled shoe or cast shoe and buddy taping is often sufficient.
“This is not meant to be medical advice and does not always apply to every circumstance.”
Another point to think about is that some breaks can be very mild and not even produce noticeable swelling or bruising.
Thus, the idea that “it can’t be broken because it doesn’t hurt that much” should not be considered.
Furthermore, a fracture doesn’t always cause a popping or cracking noise.
In addition, a bruise on a toe doesn’t always mean a fracture, either.
Plus, relentless pain – pain that doesn’t subside with rest and persists for days and days – doesn’t always mean a fracture; this can be caused by a very bad jamming incident.
Kicking Against a Hard Surface
One day while sparring in a karate class, I delivered a front kick to my partner’s chest.
She was wearing a rather hard chest brace, and maybe that had something to do with the outcome – but the outcome was that at the moment of impact, I felt a searing pain in my big toe.
I couldn’t continue with the class. The pain was severe and there was no let-up as the day wore on.
However, the toe looked normal and never became discolored or swollen. An X-ray confirmed that it had not been broken, only jammed.
But extension of the big toe was limited for quite some time – from what seemed like weakness – and there was pain whenever I went up on my toes or pulled the toe forward (manual extension).
Eventually it returned to normal once I began gently going up and down on my foot (passive extension of the big toe), soaking it a few times daily in very warm water, doing flexion exercises (clenching the toes) and picking up socks off the floor with my toes.
Don’t Be Scared to See a Doctor
There’s nothing to be afraid of. The toe will not take longer to heal if you hear, “The X-ray shows a fracture.” You really should know whether or not you have a broken bone.
The treatment for a broken toe may be very similar to that of a jammed toe that’s causing severe pain.
The treatments are ice, rest (avoid any activities that will bend the toe such as martial arts, jumping, jogging, basketball, volleyball, hiking, being in an environment where something could drop onto the foot, etc.), elevation and immobilization with buddy taping.
Buddy taping is when the injured toe is taped to the toe nest to it to keep it immobilized and supported.
But if a fracture is serious enough, setting of the bone will be necessary.
Dr. Adam specializes in the care of athletes and active individuals of all ages, offering prevention, diagnosis and treatment of sports and exercise injuries. Dr. Adam’s care focuses on muscle injuries and biomechanics.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.