We’ve all been there. One minute you’re walking around minding your own business then the next minute your pinky toe decides to ram against the dang coffee table. The pain that comes afterward is out of this world.
Maybe the pain is gone after a few minutes and life goes on. Or, maybe the pain lingers and the toe is looking a little deformed.
It could be a toe sprain, which is an extremely common injury for people of all ages.
It’s also possible that your pinky toe has been dislocated or broken.
Let’s learn about what a sprained pinky toe is exactly and what to do about it.
At The Feel Good Lab, we have heard everything when it comes to injuries. Whether it’s a slipped disc or a sprained toe, no job is too big or too small to use You Plus Relief.
What is a sprained toe?
That sharp pain in your pinky toe means something has gone wrong. What is a sprain anyway?
As you may know, a sprain can happen to really any joint in your body. A sprain occurs when a ligament is injured, which is the tissue that connects bone to bone in joints.
So, a toe sprain happens when a ligament in the toe is torn or stretched. This is different from a broken toe which only involves the bone.
Let’s review some anatomy.
Would you believe that each of your toes (except for the big toe) contains three bones? Yes, three.
But, the pinky toe is so small, you might say. Does it really contain all of those joints and ligaments? Yes, indeed. However, it is not very strong and is the most susceptible toe of the foot to injury.
All of the toes (except for the big toe) has these three joints:
- The metatarsophalangeal joint, where your toe meets your foot
- The proximal interphalangeal joint, which is in the middle of your toe
- The distal phalangeal joint, which is closest to the tip of your toe
The big toe only contains the metatarsophalangeal joint and interphalangeal joints.
So, really, any of these joints can become sprained. It can be hard to tell which in such a small toe as your pinky toe, but that’s not what’s important.
What causes a sprained toe?
Toe sprains can be the result of a traumatic injury such as hitting your toe off of a piece of furniture.
Or, you can also sprain your toe by way of hyperextension. Hyperextension is when a joint is extended beyond its natural range of motion. This can happen when one toe gets stuck on something while the rest of the foot moves forward. Ouch.
Certainly, anyone can get a sprained toe but athletes are a bit more prone. For example, there is a type of injury called ‘turf toe’ which involves a hyperextension injury to the big toe. This is often the result of playing sports on artificial grass.
What are the symptoms of a sprained toe?
The main symptoms of a sprained toe you are likely to experience include:
- pain throughout the toe that may even extend into the rest of the foot or ankle
- joint instability
- trouble moving the toe
You may even hear an audible ‘pop’ or ‘tear’ when the sprain happens, especially if it is severe.
The severity of sprain and diagnosis
A sprain of any joint is graded by its severity which guides the treatment and recovery time. See below.
Grade I - This is considered a mild sprain where stretching of the ligament causes small tears (microtearing) but the joint remains fully functional and stable.
Grade II – This is a moderate sprain where a partial tear of the ligament occurs but the joint remains fully functional and only mildly unstable.
Grade III – This is a severe sprain that causes a complete tear of the ligament resulting in significant loss of joint function and instability.
This, of course, is probably impossible to determine on your own.
A doctor can diagnose your sprain by taking a history of what led to the injury, ask which movements make the pain worse, and determine whether or not the joint is stable.
He or she will better be able to pinpoint the site and extent of the sprain and recommend appropriate treatment.
How to treat a sprained toe
You sprained your toe. Now, what do you do for sprained toe treatment?
That sprained toe is probably looking swollen and reddened. Not to worry, most minor sprained toes can be treated easily at home.
Cue the RICE formula. This is a reliable algorithm for injuries that involve swollen joints.
Rest. If your toe is sprained, it makes sense to avoid movement or exercise that makes pain worse. Even simply standing or walking can cause pain. While it is difficult to stay off your feet completely, try to avoid as much unnecessary pressure as possible.
Ice. Applying ice to a sprain reduces swelling and inflammation and speeds up recovery. Pain is also relieved because ice works to numb the sore tissues. When the ice is removed, the veins compensate by letting in a big rush of blood and nutrients to help with recovery.
Apply a covered ice pack (gotta protect the skin) to the injured area for 15-20 minutes at a time every few hours for the first couple of days. After this period, heat might feel better and soothe the pain.
Also check out our awesome and effective You Plus Relief which is designed to reduce inflammation while increasing blood flow and nutrients to the problem area.
Compression. Okay, so it’s probably going to be difficult to apply compression to a toe, especially the pinky toe. Compression does help limit swelling, but in the case of a sprained toe, you might have to skip this step.
If your big toe is sprained, you could use light compression on it, but don’t overdo it. Too much compression can delay healing which is obviously not good for long-term foot health.
Elevation. Elevating the toes is another good method for reducing swelling associated with injury. Reducing blood flow to the toes will decrease swelling and limit your pain. It also allows your body to rest and relieve pressure from the injured area. Try propping your leg up on some pillows or, better yet, rest your leg on a chair.
Other ways to help with recovery from a sprained toe include:
- Temporary use of an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen to help relieve swelling and pain
- Wearing supportive shoes with a thick sole to help keep the toe in place and protect from further injury (yes, ditch those fancy sandals for awhile)
- Try some immobilization by using a makeshift splint by “buddy taping” - tape the injured toe to a healthy toe next to it to help limit movement and increase healing
See how to apply buddy taping below:
Sprained toe recovery time
Like any injury, a sprained toe takes time to heal. The length of time depends on the severity of the injury and if it’s being properly cared for.
In general, here’s what you can expect:
- Grade I Sprained Toe - 1-2 weeks
- Grade II Sprained Toe - 2-4 weeks
- Grade III Sprained Toe - 2-6 weeks
As you recover, avoid strenuous activity. You are safe to return to your normal activities when you stop feeling pain while walking or during other activities.
If you are still feeling pinky toe pain when walking months later, it may be time to take things a step further.
Sprained or stubbed toe still hurts months later? Here’s what to do
Still having pinky toe pain when walking? Can’t get rid of that nagging pain no matter what you do, months after the initial injury?
It might be time to seek medical attention. It is possible that you could have a broken toe or dislocated toe. Neither of which are much fun to deal with.
If still having pain months after an injury, a trip to the doctor (a doctor specializing in podiatry is best) is in order. He or she will take your history, look at your toe and move it around, and decide on a diagnosis.
An x-ray might be ordered to see if the toe is broken. In rare cases, an MRI can be ordered to look at the extent of damage to the ligaments and soft tissues around the joint.
It could also have been just a really bad sprain that is taking longer to heal.
Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor will prescribe appropriate treatment. This might include the interventions discussed above as well as a longer rest period, immobilization, or a walking boot.
Obviously, it would be difficult to put a cast on a broken toe so that’s probably out.
The doctor might also advise certain exercises to try at home to help speed recovery. These exercises should be performed gently as they are designed to improve range of motion and rehabilitate the muscle back to a normal state of functioning. We are not trying to build significant muscle here.
Sprained toe exercises
Vertical Toe Raise: Place your hands on a flat, hard surface at waist level for support as you carefully bear weight on the injured foot. Press the injured toes into the ground, raising yourself away from the ground until the point of pain. Hold this position for five seconds while supporting yourself with your hands and then slowly release back to the starting position. Repeat this exercise ten times two to three times per day.
Horizontal Toe Press: Press your injured foot against a wall with the tips of your toes just touching the wall. Place your leg with the injured toe behind you and place your hands on the wall for support. Carefully lever the toes onto the wall and gently apply pressure downwards, stretching your toes until the point of pain. Hold this position for five seconds while supporting yourself with your hands and then slowly release back to the starting position. Repeat this exercise ten times two to three times per day.
Vertical Toe Press: Place your hands on a flat, hard surface at waist level for support as you carefully bear weight on the injured foot. Curl the toes behind you and press into the ground the injured toes until the point of pain. Hold this position for five seconds while supporting yourself with your hands and then slowly release back to the starting position. Repeat this exercise ten times two to three times per day.
Check out this how-to video for toe strengthening exercises:
These exercises are perhaps a nice break from sitting at a desk all day. Remember, gentle movements. Pushing yourself through pain is never a good idea.
This little piggy
A sprained toe is nothing short of annoying. It has the potential to keep you off of your feet and out of the game for quite some time.
Toe sprains most often happen after trauma or hyperextension of the toe.
Fortunately, treatment of toe sprains can usually be performed at home and include reducing swelling, foot support, immobilization of the toe, or exercises to strengthen the joint.
Toe sprains can be mistaken for broken or dislocated toes. If pain persists after awhile, it is wise to seek medical attention from a podiatrist.
Meet the Author
Shannon is a nurse practitioner with an array of clinical experience. She is particularly passionate about health promotion and disease prevention. When she's not nurse practitioner-ing or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and yoga. You can check out her blog at https://shannonthenp.com.