One of the most common concerns my patients have after breaking one or more toes is: Is it normal for my toes to remain swollen for a long time?
Can edema persist for several weeks or even months? How can we reduce this swelling?
This article aims to:
- Answering any questions you may have regarding toe swelling after a fracture.
- Reassure you: this is a completely harmless phenomenon, even if it persists!
As usual, to provide you with information as precise and objective as possible, I rely on:
- My experience as a physiotherapist at home, in hospital and in rehabilitation since 2009.
- Research carried out in international scientific literature.
Good reading ! And go to the comments to share any experiences, comments, or questions 🙂!
Take-home message: Toes may remain swollen for several months after a fracture. This is not a sign of complication or seriousness and there is no specific technique to definitively eliminate this swelling more quickly.
Last update: October 2023
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Swollen toe, edema after a fracture: are they the same thing?
In common parlance, we speak of swollen or swollen toe(s) when the toe(s) concerned have a larger volume than normal.
The medical term used is “ toe edema ,” which means the same thing.
Toe edema = swollen toe(s) = swollen toe(s)
After a toe fracture, whether it has been operated on or not, it sometimes happens that the entire foot is swollen : the forefoot or even the ankle, or even the calf.
We can measure this edema with a tape measure, and compare this measurement with the other side. Personally, I don’t find this useful, because:
1/ the measurement is not very reliable (especially for the toe);
2/ this does not give us a path for action based on what we observe because in any case edema is not in itself a sign of a problem to be treated.
This is a very common, if not constant, phenomenon and does not necessarily mean there is a problem.
Often, the skin on the affected toe may also change color or texture. It can become:
- Stretched, cracked, hard,
- Bruising (blue, purple, yellow) may appear. Sometimes these bruises can extend from your feet to your hip.
Although this may sometimes seem impressive, it is again a common development after a toe fracture, whether it has been operated on or not . This shouldn’t necessarily worry you.
Why do toes swell after a fracture?
It is very likely that your toes will swell after a fracture. This is a normal and physiological phenomenon.
However, edema can vary in intensity from person to person, depending in part on genetic factors.
Swollen toe after fracture without surgery
The swelling results from the accumulation of fluids in the different layers of tissue of the toes. It is linked to inflammation of different tissues.
The inflammation that causes swelling is a completely healthy and even therapeutic reaction! It is an automatic response of our immune system, inherited from our ancestors . This inflammation helps repair damaged tissues.
It brings to the injured area, through liquids, all the substances necessary to help the damaged structures heal naturally as quickly as possible.
Sometimes, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are prescribed for the first few days after the fracture. This limits this inflammatory phenomenon, but does not stop it completely, because it has some advantages 🙂.
There is also a whole debate on the benefit of anti-inflammatories after trauma.
After a toe fracture, inflammatory reactions occur in the toes, causing swelling and edema. This is normal, common, and means your body is doing everything it can to promote good healing and a successful recovery!
Why do some people have more edema?
We know some of the factors that influence the severity of edema. You are more likely to have more severe and persistent edema if:
- you suffer from certain illnesses (such as hypothyroidism, vein problems, or heart failure);
- you are overweight or obese;
- you lost a lot of blood during the fracture.
You are not alone! Every day, dozens of people search the internet for information about the duration of their toe swelling after a fracture, which lasts for 4 weeks, 6 weeks, or longer.
Swollen toe after surgery
Sometimes (it is rare) toe fractures are operated on.
In this case, the inflammation is even more present. Because to stabilize the fracture, your surgeon damaged certain tissues to reach the area to be treated.
Inflammation allows these damaged tissues to be repaired.
Swollen foot after toe fracture
When a fracture occurs, there may be an inflammatory response and therefore swelling.
They affect not only the area immediately surrounding the fracture (and therefore the toe), but also neighboring structures, including the ankle and sometimes even the calf.
This is why you may also find your foot swollen.
Does swelling mean our fracture is serious?
No, there is no direct relationship between swelling and the severity of the fracture.
Some people can have swelling in their toe for a very long time even though they simply suffered a small contusion: a simple shock without bone or ligament damage.
Or a simple sprain: a stretching of a ligament, without the bone being affected either.
So swelling of the toe is neither an absolute sign of toe fracture, nor a sign of seriousness!
How long does toe swelling last?
Even if you have consulted a healthcare professional who has been able to examine you, determining a priori the duration of your toe swelling is very difficult.
Because many factors (over which we do not necessarily have control) come into play.
In some people who have broken their toe, the swelling will only last a few days. The swelling will go away before the bone is completely consolidated.
In others, the swelling will last longer than the consolation. So maybe 4, 6, 8 weeks. Sometimes even several months .
You can still resume your daily activities, even with swelling! It is the consolation of the bones that determine whether or not we can return to our “previous life”, whether or not there is edema.
Swelling is not necessarily associated with pain.
See this more comprehensive article on healing time for a broken toe.
Why can toe swelling persist for several months for some people?
I know it’s frustrating sometimes not to know “why” the swelling lasts longer for us than for others.
I’ll give you some possible causes, even if most often, we don’t really know why the toes and feet and ankles remain more swollen in certain people!
Here are some possible explanations:
Prolonged inflammation : In you, the inflammation in response to the fracture may be more intense or last longer than in others. This can lead to swelling that persists.
Type of fracture : Complex fractures, open fractures (with a skin wound), or those that involve multiple toes or major joints are more likely to cause persistent swelling.
Poor circulation of fluids : If you spend a lot of time sitting or standing statically, fluids can accumulate more in the lower limbs. And cause this swelling.
How to reduce toe swelling?
The passage of time is by far your best ally !
I completely understand that you want to find a way to deflate your toes or foot as quickly as possible : you are worried that it looks different compared to your other toes.
Sometimes the edema may even bother you, or you may find it unsightly.
However, I must be honest with you: we do not necessarily have a “miracle” or even simply effective solution to significantly accelerate this deflation .
The solutions available against edema
Ultrasound in physiotherapy and other means of physiotherapy (application of cold, electrotherapy via TENS), massage , manual lymphatic drainage, pressotherapy (compression boots), kinesio-taping are not effective in the short and long term to reduce edema.
The following advice can be followed to have a short-term action on edema (especially in the foot) , but as soon as they are no longer applied, it is very likely that the edema will return:
- wear class 2 compression socks or class 2 compression stockings. Wearing compression can help reduce swelling (see here on Amazon);
- position your foot at an angle (feet higher than your hip and heart);
- limit the time spent in a static standing position (household chores) or sitting (meals, computer). Favor alternating walking and sloping positions.
Swollen toes don’t mean no activity
Important and often counter-intuitive thing: just because a limb is swollen does not mean it will necessarily make it difficult to resume walking or even sport!
This is valid in the days following the fracture but also longer afterwards.
The edema will decrease over days, weeks or months no matter what you do . Place your leg at an angle, avoid a static sitting or standing position, wear compression stockings… all of this can help limit edema.
In the meantime, go about your life, simply adapting according to pain and discomfort!
Here’s what I wanted to tell you about this! I wish you a very good recovery! Do you have any comments or questions? Your comments are welcome 🙂 !
If you feel the need to learn more about the recovery period after a toe fracture, I wrote this guide in eBook format:
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There are no specific studies on edema after toe fracture, but there are more general studies on edema of the lower limbs in the context of fracture or operation, which allow us to better understand this mechanism.
Horst K, Greven J, Lüken H, Zhi Q, Pfeifer R, Simon TP, Relja B, Marzi I, Pape HC, Hildebrand F. Trauma Severity and Its Impact on Local Inflammation in Extremity Injury-Insights From a Combined Trauma Model in Pigs . Front Immunol. 2020 Jan 9;10:3028. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.03028 . PMID: 31993054; PMCID: PMC6964795.
Pierce A, Pittet JF. Inflammatory response to trauma: implications for coagulation and resuscitation. Curr Opin Anaesthesiol. 2014 Apr;27(2):246-52. doi: 10.1097/ACO.0000000000000047. PMID: 24419158; PMCID: PMC4124829.
Publication plus générale sur les fractures des orteils : Van Vliet-Koppert ST, Cakir H, Van Lieshout EM, De Vries MR, Van Der Elst M, Schepers T. Demographics and functional outcome of toe fractures. J Foot Ankle Surg. 2011 May-Jun;50(3):307-10. doi: 10.1053/j.jfas.2011.02.003. Epub 2011 Mar 25. PMID: 21440463.
Image: Zhang J, Li Z, Ma X, Feng H. A pathological toe fracture as the first presentation of cervical cancer: A case report. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Jan;98(3):e14190. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000014190. PMID: 30653171; PMCID: PMC6370133.
Written by Nelly Darbois
I love writing articles based on my experience as a physiotherapist (since 2012), scientific writer, and extensive researcher in international scientific literature.
I live in the French Alps 🌞❄️, where I work as a scientific editor for my own website, which is where you are right now.