“Your little toe can do a lot for you. Dorling Kindersley, Ruth Jenkinson/Getty Images
Your pinky toe might seem like it serves no real function but to look cute. But if you’ve ever stubbed, fractured or otherwise injured it, you find out otherwise. You’re probably surprised at how much an injured fifth toe affects your everyday life.
The pinky is part of a complex system within the foot. In fact, every standard foot is composed of 30 joints, 28 bones and more than 100 tendons and ligaments. All these parts can make any foot injury extra-unpleasant. "Any pain in that area is definitely high since it is mostly muscle and blood, leading to more inflammation and aches when swollen," explains Dr. Aditi Gupta Jha, lead physician at the medical online consulting platform, JustDoc.com, in an email.
You can learn to live without this little piggy, but it’s easier to have one, as it works in concert with the other toes and rest of the foot to get us where we need to go. "The purpose of the pinky toe is to provide balance and propulsion," says podiatrist Dr. Bruce Pinker with Progressive Foot Care in Nanuet, New York. "As one takes a step, the foot rolls from lateral to medial in normal foot biomechanics." This motion helps us "push off" to the next step. When the pinky is damaged in some way, the propulsion is limited, leading to an affected gait. Occasionally, side effects can be more severe. "If [the fifth toe is] injured or has to be amputated, it can lead to falls from imbalance," Dr. Jha says.
In fact, our reliance on the foot’s "tripod" of balance (the heel, pinky toe knuckle and big toe knuckle) is pretty critical. Loss of one of those elements can significantly inhibit a person’s ability to skip, run or walk. The pinky also helps us to push off the side of a swimming pool when diving in, making it extra-important to the livelihoods of competitive swimmers, says podiatrist Dr. Mark Hinkes via email.
The type of shoes you wear can impact your little toe negatively. "In fashion footwear, the pinky toe can rub against the inside of the shoe until a ‘bursa,’ which is a fluid-filled sac between the skin and bone, develops. This malady is known as bursitis and it really hurts," says Hinkes, noting that narrow-toed shoes are pinky killers. Pointy-toe shoes can also cause hammertoe to develop, which is when the toe abnormally bends in the middle. It’s more common in the second, third and fourth toes at the middle joint, but can also occur in pinkies.
“Wearing high heels and pointy-toe shoes can be bad for your pinkies.Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
The pain potential doesn’t end there, however. "Pinky toes are famous for developing soft tissue lesions on the top, tip, or in-between the toes. These lesions are called corns," Hinkes explains. Corns don’t look like much to write home about, but they have been likened to having a constant rock in the shoe, and sometimes require surgery to get rid of.
So, let’s say you severely stub or smash your toe and you fear that it’s fractured. What next? Don’t try to tough it out — visit a doctor and get an X-ray. A fracture that isn’t properly treated could subject you to premature arthritis if the joint is impacted.
"If the little toe is severely bruised or injured, it needs to be cared for based on the kind of injury," explains Dr. Jha. "If it is only superficial skin, it repairs itself over time with good hygiene and antibiotic ointments. If the muscle or bone is however injured, conservative management is advised to try and preserve the defected part. Mostly a splint is applied which is a bandage that is tied to the adjacent toe, so that movement is restricted and healing can then occur."
And in the event that you have to have your little toe amputated, podiatrist Hinkes says most people can adjust to walking without it. However, "losing a pinky can be psychologically distressing and we often refer patients to a counselor before and after the procedure… [They also] may use a special custom insole after the operation site heals."
Now That’s Cool
If you’ve been diagnosed with a toe fracture, check out this helpful video on how to use self-adherent wrap to complete a "buddy splint." This will immobilize the toe and reduce potential for swelling.
Originally Published: Oct 16, 2017
Pinky Toe FAQ
How do you know if you broke your pinky toe?
The most common symptoms of a broken pinky toe include a popping sound when the injury occurs; throbbing pain, though it may fade after a couple of hours; difficulty bearing weight on the foot; the toe seeming out of alignment; and swelling and bruising.
What is the pinky toe called?
The fifth outermost or pinky toe is also sometimes called “baby toe”, “little toe”, and “small toe”. The bones of the toes are called phalanges.
Can you walk on a broken pinky toe?
If you break or sprain your pinky toe, you’ll usually still be able to walk, though your balance may be a bit off. This is because that little toe’s main purpose is to provide balance and propulsion when you’re moving.
Why does my pinky toe hurt?
If your pinky toe hurts and there wasn’t an obvious injury that could have caused a fracture or sprain, you may be dealing with bursitis, when a fluid-filled sac between the skin and bone develops. This can be caused by footwear choices like narrow or pointed-toed shoes. If the pain continues, talk to your doctor.
How do you treat a broken pinky toe?
Treatment varies, but normally starts with an x-ray to determine the type and severity of the fracture. From there, your doctor may prescribe a walking boot or cast, or simply splint your pinky to your fourth toe. They’ll also often recommend over-the-counter pain medications and rest. In rare cases, surgery may be required.