Sprained Toe vs. Broken Toe: How to Tell the Difference

Feb 25, 2022

At some point, we’ve all stubbed our toe against a piece of furniture and know how painful that simple act can be. Our toes actually have a relatively large number of nerve endings, which is why seemingly small injuries can be so painful. This is true of not only stubbing your toe, but more serious cases like car accident injuries as well. Because the pain can be so intense, it may be hard to know whether you’ve broken your toe or suffered a different injury, like spraining it. A doctor should be the one to make a final diagnosis in these cases, but read on for a guide to understanding the difference between these injuries.

Sprains and Fractures

A sprain refers to an injury in the tissue that connects bones together in joints, known as the ligaments. When one or more of these ligaments is stretched or torn, it results in a sprain. This can occur in any joint within the toe. The big toe has two joints – the metatarsophalangeal joint where the toe meets the foot and the interphalangeal joint in the middle of the toe – while every other toe also has a third joint, the distal phalangeal joint near the tip of your toe.

Sprains can happen in response to stubbing your toe or another sudden injury, but they can also happen in response to repeated stress. Common causes of sprained toes include:

  • Running
  • Sports that involve frequent jumping
  • Competitive dancing
  • Gymnastics
  • Too much stress on the feet
  • Ballet dancing

In contrast, a fracture or break refers to an injury to the bone itself rather than the tissue. The bone can become cracked, fully break, or even shatter in certain cases. Any damage to the bone itself can be considered a broken toe.

Broken toes are usually the result of a sudden impact, such as dropping something on the foot or colliding your toe into a hard object with great force. However, stress fractures can occur as a result of repetitive motions and pressure.

Identifying a Toe Injury

A sprained toe will usually result in bruising, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, pain during movement, and throbbing in the toe. In most cases, mobility is not limited, though movement may cause additional pain. You may also feel a pop or tearing sensation when the sprain occurs, especially in more severe cases.

Broken toes can have some similar symptoms as a sprain, including tenderness and bruising, swelling, or throbbing. Broken toes may also have the following symptoms:

  • Significant swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Decreased mobility
  • Burning or tingling
  • Bleeding
  • Numbness
  • Pain that lasts more than a few days
  • A limited range of motion or ability to move the toe
  • Pain when putting weight on the foot or walking
  • A cracking sound at the time of injury
  • A blue or purple hue to the toe

Treating a Sprained Toe

Mild sprains are often able to be treated at home with simple remedies like icing the injury in 15- to 20-minute intervals, taking time to rest, and elevating the foot when possible. With proper care, a sprain will usually resolve itself in a few days to a few weeks, though you should continue being cautious about activity.

A more severe sprain, especially one that involves a torn ligament, can require more intervention. In order to create a splint and limit movement, the injured toe can be taped to the toe next to it and placed into a walking boot. Even these more serious injuries will generally be resolved in three to six weeks, and pain beyond that point can indicate another root cause.

Treating a Broken Toe

A broken toe requires medical intervention in order to avoid future complications such as deformity, bone spurs, or hammer toe. Because a toe cannot be casted individually, a doctor may use taping the toe into a splint as an alternative for providing support and limiting movement. A cast or boot can also be placed on the entire foot in order to protect the injured toe.

If a fracture is significant enough, it can require a doctor to reset the toe’s placement, which can be painful. In cases where the bone has pierced the skin, antibiotics will be prescribed to help avoid infection.

For a stress fracture, the primary treatment will be a break from the activity that caused the injury. Crutches may be recommended along with anti-inflammatory medication to manage the pain and reduce any additional stress on the toe.

About Stress Fractures

In general, the best way to tell the difference between a sprained toe and a broken toe is two criteria: the ability to move the toe and the cause of the injury. Sprains are more often related to prolonged activity, while broken toes are related to a trauma to the toe. However, this is more complicated when stress fractures are the injury in question.

Stress fractures are cracks in the bone and a form of broken toes, but they are caused by overuse or improper use of the body. Things like using poor form while running or rapidly increasing a training program without properly scaling can be triggers for a stress fracture. The toe may retain mobility in these cases because there is not a full break in the toe.

If you are experiencing symptoms such as toe pain and swelling, it is best not to assume a sprain is the only injury. An orthopedic doctor at AICA Lithia Springs will be able to fully assess your symptoms and perform a physical examination to determine the type of injury you have suffered. With access to diagnostic imaging onsite, our team will be able to make a fast and accurate diagnosis and begin creating a personalized treatment plan at this first appointment.

Sprains and fractures require different levels of care, and improper treatment can have long-term consequences for your health and continued physical activity. Visit AICA Lithia Springs today to ensure you take the proper steps towards recovery.


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