You may not give much thought to the color of your toes, but you know when something looks wrong. If you look down and notice your toes have a blue or purple tint, you need to pay attention. This color change is a key to what’s happening with your health.
Could you have something known as “blue toe syndrome,” or “trash foot”? If your toes are blue, something is blocking the flow of blood. You need to have this checked out by your doctor as quickly as possible.
Let’s take a closer look at blue toe syndrome, and why the color of your toes is trying to tell you something.
What is Blue Toe Syndrome?
Blue toe syndrome occurs when the tiny blood vessels in your foot are blocked. Not only does this result in a lack of blood getting to your toes, but a lack of oxygen as well. In many instances, it is due to some sort of obstruction elsewhere in your body. Symptoms of the condition will typically develop very quickly, leading to not only discoloration, but also severe pain.1
Blue toe syndrome can strike suddenly. Sometimes it will affect only one toe, but in others, there can be several toes that become discolored. The reason they turn blue is that they’re not getting enough oxygen, much like unoxygenated blood is blue in color.
The reason it is so important to seek medical help immediately is that blue toe syndrome is not only a sign of a serious health problem, it can also lead to the development of skin ulcers, or even gangrene – a condition which can lead to amputation.
Causes of Blue Toe Syndrome
The most common cause of blue toe syndrome is an ischemia, or a blockage of in one of the blood vessels in your foot. It could be due to a piece of plaque that has come loose from the wall of an artery or a vessel, or it could be because of an accumulation of tiny crystals of cholesterol.2
Plaque is a thick, wax-like substance composed of calcium, fatty acids, and cholesterol.
Over the years, it gradually accumulates within the walls of your arteries. When a piece of plaque breaks off and starts to move around your body, this is known as embolization. For example, one of the typical causes of blue toe syndrome is when a piece of plaque comes loose from an artery near the groin or abdomen. This piece then lodges in a blood vessel in the foot, leading to blue toe syndrome.3
Plaque can sometimes break off for no particular reason, but other times, it happens due to a surgical procedure known as an angiography. This is an exploratory procedure where a tiny tube is moved through blood vessels so that a doctor can check the inside of an artery. In some cases, medications such as blood thinners can also cause an embolization.
Whatever the cause, an obstruction due to plaque robs the toes of blood and oxygen but also. If treatment is not provided quickly, the tissues that make up the toes can die.4
Diagnosis and Treatment
Once a doctor diagnoses blue toe syndrome, the next step will usually be to determine the source of the blockage. A CT or ultrasound scan will typically be performed.
Unless a patient’s condition has degraded to the point where a more invasive treatment will be needed, doctors will usually opt for a more conservative approach. For example, this could include a recommendation for compression socks or stockings in order to increase circulation, or elevating your feet above your heart in order to keep blood from pooling in the legs and feet.
There are three main treatment options if more conservative methods don’t work.
- The most common is to insert a stent into the obstructed area. This is a small mesh tube that holds a vessel open so that blood can once again flow normally.
- Another option will be bypass surgery, where a healthy blood vessel is taken from another area of the body and then placed above and below the obstruction. This is considered the most effective form of treatment, because it diverts the flow of blood away from the portion that has been blocked.5
- There are also some instances where antiplatelet therapy or anticoagulants are used.6
Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise can help reduce the chances you’ll develop a wide range of ailments, and blue toe syndrome is no exception. The healthier your diet, the less the risk of damaging plaque forming in your arteries.
Another Reason Why Toes Can Turn Blue
While blue toe syndrome is the issue most commonly associated with discoloration of your toes, another possibility is Raynaud’s disease. Raynaud’s occurs when the arteries that supply blood to your toes temporarily narrow, limiting circulation. The symptoms usually include cold toes, as well as discoloration.7
The exact cause of Reynaud’s is not completely known, but it appears to be an overreaction to stress, or to extremely cold temperatures. However, it could be a sign of another health problem.8 If you have any reason to believe you may have this condition, talk to your doctor immediately so he or she can determine the best course of action.
No matter what the underlying cause may be, it will be imperative that you seek medical help if you notice your toes turning blue or purple. Unless you recently dropped something on your toe, or kicked something accidentally, you very likely have a problem that needs to be addressed by your doctor.