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A Broken Foot

Reviewed by
Dr. Andrew Schneider

Our feet are complex structures that contain over 25 percent of all the bones in our body. Each foot has twenty-six bones that bear all the weight applied in the course of walking, running, jumping, and dancing. The bones of the foot are susceptible to injuries, including breaks or fractures.

The usual cause of this injury is a sudden, forceful impact to one of the bones in the foot. Which bone is affected depends on the nature of the impact and whether there is an underlying medical condition that has weakened the bones and made them prone to fractures. Repeated stress placed on the bones can cause what is known as a stress fracture. Stress fractures are commonly seen in athletes and soldiers, but can affect anyone.

broken foot

Children seem to be more susceptible to broken foot bones. This is due to the fact that during childhood, the tendons and ligaments are stronger than the bones and cartilage. As the child grows into adulthood the bones become much stronger than the ligaments and tendons. For example, an injury that may break a bone in a child’s foot may only sprain an adult’s foot. As long as the fracture does not involve the growth plates, it generally heals quickly and without complications.

Broken Foot Symptoms

The symptoms of a broken foot are more intense than those of a sprained ankle. They include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Immobility
  • Bruising
  • Deformity of the foot
  • Tenderness
  • Pain that increases with activity and decreases with rest

The important thing to note here is that the symptoms of a broken foot and the symptoms of a sprain are similar. The difference is in the intensity of the pain, swelling and bruising. It is important not to make assumptions about the severity of the injury. Only an x-ray evaluation can determine the necessary treatment.

When Should I See a Doctor?

For less severe injuries, you should call your doctor and explain the problem. He or she will then help you determine whether you should go to the emergency room. If the injury is severe, you should go to the emergency room and call your doctor once you are there. If you cannot get hold of your regular physician and you think you have a broken foot, you should go to the emergency room. Never attempt to drive with a broken foot. If you are alone, call 911. If any of the following conditions develop, you should seek medical attention immediately:

  • Severe pain
  • Foot is blue, cold or numb
  • Bone is protruding from skin
  • Foot is misshaped, deformed or facing the wrong direction

Diagnosing a Broken Foot

If you have suffered a severe break, you may need to go to an emergency room if your foot and ankle specialist is unavailable. You should never attempt to drive on a broken foot, so call 911 for an ambulance. Your doctor will examine your foot and likely order x-rays to determine the extent of the injury. If the x-ray does not tell the doctor what he or she needs to know, other imaging tests such as CT and MRI scans or ultrasound are used to make the correct diagnosis. Imaging is important to ensure that the bones are in the correct position. Allowing a bone to heal in a poor position can cause continued pain, for which further surgery may be required.

Broken Foot Treatment

Treatment for a broken foot will be determined by the location and severity of the injury. Regardless of whether the injury is mild or severe, the foot needs to be stabilized before anything else is done. Stay off your foot until you can get to a doctor, even if you are able to walk with minimal pain. Your doctor will determine whether it is okay to put weight on your foot. Here is a look at some of the options your doctor may offer to treat your broken foot:

  • Crutches
  • Casting
  • Walking boot
  • Wheelchair

Each of these devices will enable you to stay mobile to some extent. Again, the option your doctor chooses for you will depend on which bone is broken and on the severity of the injury. A broken toe can usually be treated at home by splinting the broken toe to the one adjacent to it with tape. Be sure you do not tape it so tightly that you cut off the blood supply. Your podiatrist will show you the proper way to splint your fracture. A flat-bottom shoe or a shoe with a solid sole can provide additional support. It is very rare that toes are casted or require surgery. If joints are involved, however, especially in the big toe, surgery may be needed.

How quickly and completely you recover from a broken bone in your foot will depend on the severity of the injury, the bone that is broken, and how well you follow your doctor’s instructions. Broken bones in the feet take six to eight weeks to heal. In some cases, additional treatment such as a second surgery may be required to fix the injury, especially in the case of a delayed union, non union or malunion. Some victims may not experience pain and will try to walk or stand on the broken foot, causing further injury. This not only lengthens the recovery period, but may cause additional damage that requires more treatment.

Preventing a Broken Foot

Here are some basic safety tips to help you prevent an injury such as a broken foot:

  • Start slowly with all exercise routines; do not force yourself to do more than you can handle.
  • Switch exercise routines up periodically. For example, swim one day and run the next.
  • Watch for changes in terrain, such as where the curb or grass ends.
  • Eat calcium-rich foods such as milk and yogurt to strengthen your bones.
  • Wear shoes that are appropriate for the activity you are engaged in.

Broken Foot Complications

Unfortunately, a broken foot can lead to future complications. Arthritis is a major problem, especially if the fracture extends into the joint. Nerve and blood-vessel damage can also occur after a traumatic event. The lack of blood flow can cause your bones to become necrotic and non-viable. If you suffer an open fracture, your bone may be exposed to bacteria, which can lead to a bone infection. If you are injured in a car crash your muscles may be affected, which could lead to compartment syndrome. The complications listed here are some of the more severe problems experienced by people who have sustained a fracture, and they underscore the importance of seeking immediate medical attention for such injuries in order to prevent amputation and loss of limb.

Talking To Your Doctor

A broken foot can be a traumatic event. During the ensuing chaos, it may be difficult to think clearly, especially if you are the one who is injured. Here are some questions to ask your doctor if you break your foot:

  • How long does this injury take to heal?
  • What limitations do I have on my mobility?
  • What will be the best position to sleep in?
  • What is the best way to bathe?
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Medical References:

  1. WebMD, Broken Foot Overview, http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/broken-foot
  2. H. Winter Griffith, MD "Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery" (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 183
  3. M. Beers "Merck Manual of Medical Information" 2nd home edition (Pocket Books, 2003) 354; 422-423
  4. American Medical Association "Family Medical Guide" 4th Edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2004) 982

This page was last updated on April 13th, 2014



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