A sprain is an injury to a ligament, which is the tissue that connects bones together in joints. If you have a sprained toe, it means one of the ligaments in your toe is torn or stretched. A sprained toe is different from a broken toe, which is an injury to a bone, not a ligament.

With the exception of your big toe, each toe has three joints:

  • The metatarsophalangeal joint is where your toe meets your foot.
  • The proximal interphalangeal joint is in the middle of your toe.
  • The distal phalangeal joint is closest to the tip of your toe.

Your big toe only contains a metatarsophalangeal joint and an interphalangeal joint.

Any of the joints in your toes can be sprained. Read on to learn more about what a sprained toe feels like, how it’s treated, and how long you’ll need to recover.

Sprained toe symptoms can vary depending on the severity of your sprain.

The main symptoms are:

  • pain, often in the entire toe or even the area around it
  • tenderness
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • trouble moving your toe
  • joint instability

You might also feel a pop or tear when the sprain happens, especially if it’s severe.

Toe sprains are caused by injuries resulting from trauma or hyperextension of your toe. Traumatic causes usually involve hitting your toe on something, such as a piece of furniture. Hyperextension refers to extending the joints in your toe beyond their natural range of motion. This can happen when your toe gets stuck on something while the rest of your foot keeps moving forward.

Anyone can sprain their toe, but athletes are often at a higher risk. For example, football players and other athletes are vulnerable to an injury called turf toe. This is a hyperextension injury of the big toe that’s often associated with artificial grass.

If you regularly play sports, make sure you wear the right footwear and make sure your shoes fit properly.

To diagnose a sprained toe, your doctor will start by asking about any movements that make the pain in your toe worse. Be sure to tell them what you think might have caused it. This can help your doctor pinpoint the site and extent of your sprain.

Next, your doctor may try to move your toe a bit. This will give them an idea of how severe the sprain is and whether or not your joint is still stable.

Based on your exam, they may also order some imaging tests. A foot X-ray will help to rule out any broken bones, while a foot MRI scan will show how damaged your ligament is.

Sprains are classified into grades based on how severe they are. Your doctor will determine if your sprain is:

  • Grade 1. Your ligament has some minor tearing, known as microtearing.
  • Grade 2. Your ligament is partially torn and you have mild joint instability.
  • Grade 3. Your ligament is severely or completely torn and you have significant joint instability.

Mild toe sprains might not require any treatment. In other cases, you may need to tape the injured toe to the toe next to it, known as buddy taping. This helps to protect your sprained toe and provide stability so your injured ligament can heal. You can use whatever kind of tape you have on hand or purchase specialized wraps on Amazon.

While taping works well for grade 1 sprains, grade 2 or grade 3 sprains might require wearing a walking boot to provide added protection and stability. You can purchase these on Amazon as well. Remember, it’s important to check with your doctor first to make sure you’re following the best treatment option for your injury.

Regardless of how severe your sprain is, follow these tips to reduce pain and swelling:

  • Rest your foot and toe as much as possible.
  • Apply a cold compress to your toe for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day, for several days after the injury.
  • Elevate your foot when sitting or lying down.
  • Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory to help with the pain.
  • Wear shoes with a stiff sole or padding in the front to help protect your toe.

A sprained toe usually takes about three to six weeks to fully heal. The more severe your sprain is, the longer you’ll need to allow for recovery. Try to keep your toe taped for about four weeks, though your doctor can give you more specific guidelines.

As you recover, it’s important to avoid sports or strenuous activity. You can return to your previous activity level once you stop feeling any pain when walking or doing other activities. This often takes at least a few weeks.

If you’re still feeling pain after two months, make an appointment with your doctor to check for any other injuries.

Toe sprains can be painful and frustrating, especially if you’re an athlete. But most people make a full recovery within a few weeks without any long-term health problems. To avoid future complications, such as a misaligned joint, make sure to give your injured toe plenty of rest and follow your doctor’s treatment recommendations.