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My Aching Feet: Symptoms of Arthritis in Toes

Arthritis may attack the toes

Arthritis commonly attacks joints in the hands, knees, and hips, but it can occur in any part of the body where joints exist — including the toes.

A number of different types of arthritis can cause toe pain. Sometimes the cartilage wears away between the bones. And without the protective cartilage, bones rub together. This inflames the tissue and causes pain and swelling.

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If you’re experiencing toe pain, read on to find out if arthritis may be the cause.

What is toe arthritis?

Toe arthritis is caused by inflammation of the toe joint. The disease most often attacks the big toe, but the others may be affected as well. Past injuries or traumas, such as a broken or sprained toe, can cause arthritis down the road. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout may also be to blame.

Risk factors include increased age, being overweight, and a family history of arthritis. Women who wear tight, high-heeled shoes for much of their lives may also be at risk for toe arthritis.

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Symptom one: Pain

Pain is most likely the first noticeable symptom of arthritis. You may feel a general pain in the toes or only the big toe. People describe it as ranging from a deep, achy feeling to a sharper, stabbing sensation when they try to move. It may be minor, moderate, or severe depending on the level of deterioration or inflammation in the joint.

Pain is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms of arthritis. It can stop you from enjoying your normal daily activities.

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Symptom two: Stiffness

Over time, arthritis wears away at the cartilage between joints, inflames tissues, and damages synovial fluid. All these changes can make joints stiff and difficult to move.

With less cushioning and support, joints become resistant to bending and stretching. This can result in difficulty walking, as the toes play a big part in balance and in pushing the foot off the ground. It may hurt when you try to walk because the toe joint moves with every step.

Symptom three: Swelling

All types of arthritis cause inflammation in the joint, which can result in visible swelling. The toes may turn red and feel warm to the touch.

You may notice this symptom after you have been sitting for a while, or after you get out of bed. Swelling can also make it difficult to put your shoes on in the morning. They may feel tight until you walk around a while and the swelling goes down.

Symptom four: Clicking and popping noises

You know how it sounds when you crack your knuckles? You may start to hear similar sounds in your toes if you have arthritis. A grinding noise is a fairly common symptom as well.

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These sounds are caused by the deterioration of the cartilage that typically cushions the two bones in a joint. As that cartilage wears away, the bones may rub against one another, causing these sounds. If bone spurs develop, they can also cause clicks and cracks.

Symptom five: Change in appearance

Does your toe look bigger than it used to? Is it starting to rotate away from your foot? These occurrences can be symptoms of toe arthritis. As the cartilage wears away and the bone grinds against bone, the body attempts to make the situation better. Its solution is to create more bone.

Although this may stabilize the joint, it can also make it appear larger, or like it has a big bump on it, not unlike the appearance of having bunions. It may send the toe off in a new direction, creating a curved shape or what is sometimes called "claw feet."

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Symptom six: Heat

When inflammation brings more blood to your toes, you may feel a sense of warmth or heat in the area. It can be mildly irritating, but it usually doesn’t interfere with your daily activities. You may also see redness on the skin around the joints, and they may become tender to the touch.

Symptom seven: Locked joint

A locked joint can happen when there is so much swelling and stiffness that the joint is no longer able to bend at all. Rough edges on the bones and bone spurs can also cause a joint to lock up. It may feel like the toe is stuck, and it can be painful.

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This is usually not a permanent condition. You may have to walk around for a while, or try to manipulate the toe to bend again.

Symptom eight: Difficulty walking

All of these symptoms can make walking extremely painful and difficult. You may find yourself adjusting your gait as you try to put less weight on your toes. You might even choose to stop exercising. Unfortunately, these kinds of changes can affect the rest of your body, causing hip or back pain, weight gain, and other problems.

Those with arthritis in the big toe are particularly susceptible to immobility. Check with your doctor right away if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of toe arthritis. There are treatments, orthotics, physical therapy, and special shoes that can all help you feel better and stay active.

Article resources
  • Arthritis of the foot and ankle. (2015, March). Retrieved from 
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, January 29). Psoriatic arthritis. Retrieved from 
  • Understanding arthritis. (n.d.). Retrieved from 
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