We don’t tend to think much about our toes, shut away inside our shoes quietly getting on with their job. But, when we develop pain in our toes we soon become aware of how important they are to us.
Toes help to balance and support us when we walk. They maintain contact with the ground around 75% of the time, helping to bear the weight of our body. Find out about the symptoms, causes and diagnosis and treatment options related to toe arthritis.
Arthritis in the toes is a debilitating condition that causes pain in the toes, particularly when walking or when the toe is lifted. It can affect some or all of them.
Toes, particularly the big toe, can become stiff and very painful, hindering our ability to walk.
Sometimes people start to walk on the outside of the foot to compensate, which can lead to pain in the ball of the foot, or even a stress fracture with time.
There may be swelling or inflammation around the toe joint and a bump might form where joints rub together.
Other symptoms might include:
- Aching muscles
- Curling of the toes (claw toe or hammer toe)
- Thick, pitted toenails
There are several different types of arthritis that can affect the toes:
- Osteoarthritis – this is when the cartilage in the joints wears down, allowing the joints to rub together which causes pain. This is the most common form of toe arthritis.
- Rheumatoid – this is a form of inflammatory arthritis that can occur in the joints throughout the body. Around 90% of sufferers will develop arthritic toes.
- Psoriatic – Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin. Psoriatic arthritis can occur after the condition is diagnosed, although sometimes it also happens beforehand.
- Gout – this is a painful condition caused by the build up of uric acid crystals around the joints.
- Infectious – this is normally caused by bacteria in the blood, but also by a virus or fungus.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you are experiencing pain in the toes, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor as soon as possible as the earlier treatment begins, the more effective it is.
There are a number of things that people can do themselves to relieve the symptoms of arthritic toes, including:
- ice packs to reduce inflammation
- alternating between submerging feet in cold and then warm water for 30 seconds at a time. Do this for around five minutes
- wearing stiff-soled shoes with room for the toes to move
- painkillers or anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen)
Depending on the type and severity of the arthritis, there is a range of possible treatments that your doctor may recommend:
- steroid injections to reduce inflammation
- surgery to replace or reshape the affected bone. There are three types of surgery for toe arthritis:
- Cheilectomy: this involves removing part of the bone so the toe can move more freely. Improvement is significant in 75% of people.
- Arthrodesis: bones are fused together using pins, screws or a plate. This is used when the pain is severe and is 95% effective.
- Arthroplasty: replacing the joint with an artificial joint. This is normally only recommended for older people who are less physically active.
There are things that all of us can do to look after our toes and avoid developing arthritis in later life. Regular exercise is important and so is wearing comfortable shoes that allow the toes to move.
Being overweight puts strain on our toes and joints, so losing weight will both help to protect them and be good for our overall health and wellbeing.