Last Updated: May 31st, 2019
It happens to everyone at some point: You get up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, and “BAM” – you’ve whacked your big toe on the side of the bed. As you hop around in agony, you wonder, “Did I just break my toe?!”
If you tend to walk around your home barefoot, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re eventually going to hit your toe on something. It could be a table, a chair, or some other piece of furniture. It could be a wall, or a door. Whatever your foot comes into contact with, it’s going to cause some serious pain. But how can you tell whether your toe is just stubbed, or if you’ve suffered a fracture?
Assess Your Pain Level
You might think that you would be able to immediately tell if you’ve suffered a broken bone, but the difference between a stubbed toe and a fractured toe isn’t always that clear-cut.
Knowing whether it’s a stub or a fracture is important, because if you have a fracture, you need to get it taken care of as soon as you can. Otherwise, the problem could get significantly worse. There’s a chance that you might not only suffer pain for a longer period of time, but you could risk an infection, or even a permanent deformity.1
How Long Does the Pain Last?
One of the first indicators of what type of injury you’ve suffered is the length of time that you’re in pain. If, for example, if your toe hurts for a couple of hours, and then the pain subsides, that’s a good indication that you’ve just stubbed it. But if your toe continues to hurt for the remainder of the day, you might have some sort of fracture.2
Another sign of a broken toe is the type of pain you have. If your toe continually throbs or quickly swells, that could mean you have a fracture. Also, if you have a lot of pain when walking, that might also be an indication of a break.3
Look at Discoloration and Shape
Another way you can tell the extent of an injury is by the type of discoloration that occurs. You’re definitely going to see some bruising, initially, whether you’ve stubbed or broken your toe. But if the area is still discolored after a few days, or this discoloration spreads to another area of the foot, you may have a broken toe.4
The kind of discoloration you have is important, too. For example, if the color of the bruise is similar to other bruises you’ve had in the past, you probably don’t need to worry. If, on the other hand, the area looks darker than normal, or looks odd in any way, that could be a sign of a fracture.5
Look at the toe that suffered the injury, and then compare it to the same toe on your other foot. If you see a significant difference in the shape of the affected toe, that probably means you have a broken toe. This will be especially true if the injured toe is crooked or stuck in an odd position – particularly if it’s pointing up or down.6
When to See a Doctor
The first thing you need to do if you believe you have a broken toe is to stay off of it and get in touch with a doctor. Try to ice the affected area of your foot, and keep it elevated until you can get medical help.
Once your doctor performs an examination, if a break is suspected, then the broken toe may be splinted. It may also be secured to the next toe in order to prevent further injury from occurring. In some severe cases, a fracture may need to be reset through a surgical procedure.
Recovery – What to Expect
If you have a broken bone, you can expect that area to stay swollen and painful for a few weeks. You’ll need to stay off the affected foot in order for it to heal properly. There is a chance you’ll need a walking cast for a couple of weeks. Your doctor will probably recommend that you avoid playing a sport, walking for long distances or running for a month or two.8
The Bottom Line
Any type of toe injury will bring with it a great deal of pain. But it’s important to know whether you’ve stubbed or broken your toe. If you’re in pain for several days, or you have unusual bruising, and massive swelling, seek medical help.
Learn More About Your Toes:
Have Shooting Toe Pain? What Causes it and Best Treatments
Purple Toe Syndrome (or trash foot): What’s Causing This?
5 Causes of Painful Toe Cramping (and How to Prevent It)