If you or your child plays sports on artificial turf, chances are that you’ve heard about turf toe and know it’s a bad thing. But do you really understand what causes the injury? As an American Fork podiatrist, I know that understanding turf toe and recognizing the injury in its early stages can help keep you or your child on the athletic field (and off of crutches) so I thought I’d give you some background on this often-misunderstood toe injury. Football players are very vulnerable to turf toe, but so are other athletes

What Causes Turf Toe?

Turf toe is the phrase used to mean that you’ve sprained the ligaments around your big toe—football players are most commonly affected by this injury, but soccer and basketball players, wrestlers, gymnasts and dancers may all be at risk.

When you engage in a sport, your big toe helps you push off between steps as you shift weight from one foot to another. When you are constantly pushing off on a hard surface, the force of the “turf” puts a strain on your toe ligaments, causing them to become hyper-extended and inflamed.

For the purposes of this posting, I’m focusing on turf-toe as an overuse injury, since that is preventable, but it’s important to remember that this type of sprain can be an acute injury as well.

Symptoms of Turf Toe

In the early stages of turf-toe, the athlete will notice pain, minor swelling and a lack of mobility at the base of one or both big toes. If left untreated, these problems will become more debilitating over time, especially if you continue to participate in exacerbating activities like sports.

When it comes to an acute “turf toe” injury, however, the injury will hurt right away, getting much worse over the next 24 hours. You may also hear a loud noise, like a pop, at the moment of the injury.

How Will My Podiatrist Diagnose Turf Toe?

To diagnose turf toe, you will need to have a talk with your doctor. Your podiatrist will likely ask about your participation in sports, the kind of shoes you wear—even your job may need to be discussed. Following a conversation, your podiatrist should then then examine your foot; based on the location of your swelling, if turf toe is suspected, you’ll likely need an X-Ray to rule out a fracture. If the diagnosis is unclear, you may also need a CT Scan or MRI to confirm the true problem.  

Once all the scans have been completed, your doctor can give you a proper diagnosis, and treatment can begin.

How Your Turf Toe Will Be Treated

Above all else, the best treatment for this kind of injury is rest.  Your podiatrist will likely also recommend ice, compression, and elevation (the remaining portion of the acronym R.I.C.E).This regimen will give your body time to heal: the inflammation can go down, and you can prevent any further damage to your ligaments and joints.

In some cases, over the counter pain meds may also be recommended, to help you deal with the discomfort and to minimize inflammation. In order to help ensure your toe gets rest, your toe may be buddy taped or strapped to its neighboring toe.  In some cases, a walking cast or even crutches may be required to keep any pressure you’re your problem toe. In extreme situations, only surgery will be able to help symptoms, but this is not a typical outcome.

When it comes to turf toe, the sooner you pay attention to your symptoms, the better. If you are experiencing any kind of pain around your big toe and you have been involved in any competitive athletics, it’s important to schedule an injury evaluation with Dr. Brandt Gibson as soon as possible to keep your problem from progressing further. 


Brandt R Gibson, DPM
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Podiatrist, Neuropathy Doctor, Father of 11 and Founder of Mountain West Foot & Ankle Institute