What Is Turf Toe?

  • Lewis Spencer Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Derby


Turf toe, a term that might sound like a whimsical nickname for a sports injury, actually carries significant weight in the realm of athletic mishaps.1 This seemingly innocuous phrase refers to a condition that can afflict anyone engaging in sports, from seasoned professionals to weekend enthusiasts. Understanding turf toe is not just a matter of semantics; it's key to understanding the potential challenges and implications it poses. So, let's delve into the world of turf toe, unpacking its definition and exploring why it's crucial to have a solid grasp of this particular injury.

Anatomy of the toe

To fully understand the intricacies of the turf toe, one must first familiarize oneself with its anatomy.2 The toe, a seemingly small and inconspicuous part of the body, has a complex structure comprising bones, ligaments, and tendons. These structures have the main function of facilitating movement and providing stability. Ligaments, which are tough bands of tissue, connect bone to bone and play a crucial role in supporting the joints. Tendons, on the other hand, connect muscles to bones, enabling the controlled movement of the toes.

In the context of turf toe, specific ligaments and tendons come under scrutiny. The ligaments around the base of the big toe, particularly the plantar complex, are often affected. These ligaments are vital for maintaining stability during activities like walking, running, or jumping. When these ligaments are subjected to excessive stress or force, as is common in certain sports, it can lead to the onset of turf toe.

Causes of turf toe

Understanding why turf toe occurs involves examining the specific triggers that lead to this condition. While the name might suggest a connection to a specific playing surface, the causes go beyond the type of turf one plays on.3

One primary cause of turf toe lies in the nature of sports-related activities. Athletes engaging in sports that involve sudden stops, sharp turns, or push-off movements are particularly susceptible. The repeated pressure and stress placed on the forefoot during these activities can strain the ligaments around the big toe, eventually leading to turf toe.3

Moreover, the type of playing surface contributes significantly to the risk of developing this injury. Surfaces with less give, such as artificial turf or firm ground, amplify the impact on the toe joint. The lack of natural shock absorption increases the strain on the ligaments, making athletes more prone to turf toe.


As with any injury, turf toe manifests itself through a range of symptoms varying in intensity. These symptoms, while initially subtle, can significantly impact an individual's daily activities, particularly those involving the use of the feet.4

Pain and swelling are hallmarks of turf toe. The pain is often concentrated around the base of the big toe, intensifying during movement or when pressure is applied. This discomfort may start as a mild ache but can progress to sharp, persistent pain as the condition worsens. Accompanying the pain, swelling around the affected area is a common occurrence. The inflammation is a result of the body's natural response to injury, and in the case of turf toe, it signifies the strain placed on the ligaments.

The impact of turf toe on mobility is another critical aspect of its symptoms. Individuals with turf toe may find it challenging to push off the affected foot, resulting in altered gait patterns. The restriction in movement can extend beyond the immediate vicinity of the injury, affecting the overall functionality of the foot.4 

Understanding these symptoms is crucial for early recognition and intervention. Timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment during the early stages of turf toe can prevent the exacerbation of symptoms and facilitate a smoother recovery. In the next section, we will explore the diagnostic methods employed to identify turf toe and discuss their significance in the overall management of this condition.6


Pinpointing turf toe amidst the myriad of foot injuries requires a comprehensive diagnostic approach. Healthcare professionals employ various methods to accurately identify and assess the extent of the injury, enabling tailored treatment plans.

A crucial component of the diagnostic process is a thorough physical examination. Healthcare providers evaluate the range of motion of the affected toe, looking for signs of limited movement or stiffness. Palpation of the joint helps determine the specific areas of tenderness and swelling, providing valuable clues about the location and severity of the injury.2

In addition to the physical examination, imaging techniques play a pivotal role in confirming the diagnosis. X-rays are commonly used to rule out fractures and assess the alignment of the bones. However, turf toe may not always be visible on standard X-rays, making other imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound, valuable tools. These provide detailed images of soft tissues like ligaments, offering a more nuanced understanding of the extent of the injury.2

Treatment options

Addressing turf toe involves a multifaceted approach aimed at relieving symptoms, promoting healing, and preventing recurrence. The chosen treatment plan often depends on the severity of the injury and the individual's specific circumstances.2

  1. Rest and ice: The foundation of turf toe treatment lies in allowing the injured ligaments to heal. This often necessitates a period of rest and minimising weight-bearing activities. Applying ice to the affected area helps alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, contributing to the overall recovery process.6
  2. Medications for pain management: Pain management plays a crucial role in enhancing the comfort of individuals with turf toe during recovery. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be recommended to control pain and inflammation. However, it's essential to use these medications under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
  3. Physical therapy: Engaging in targeted exercises and rehabilitation under the guidance of a physiotherapist is integral to turf toe recovery. These exercises aim to strengthen the muscles surrounding the toe, improve flexibility, and restore normal function. Physical therapy is particularly beneficial in preventing long-term complications and promoting a gradual return to activities.
  4. Supportive devices (braces or taping): Providing additional support to the injured toe can expedite healing. Splints, braces, or taping techniques may be employed to limit movement, reduce strain on the ligaments, and promote a stable environment for recovery.


Preventing turf toe involves a proactive approach focused on minimising the risk factors associated with this injury. While some factors, such as the type of playing surface, may be beyond individual control, adopting preventive measures can significantly reduce the likelihood of experiencing turf toe.5

  1. Proper footwear: Wearing footwear that provides adequate support and cushioning is crucial, especially in sports prone to turf toe. Shoes with a reinforced toe box and appropriate arch support help distribute pressure evenly, reducing the strain on the ligaments around the big toe.
  2. Warm-up and stretching exercises: Incorporating thorough warm-up routines before engaging in sports activities is essential. Dynamic stretches that target the muscles and ligaments of the feet and toes will prepare the body for the demands of the activity, reducing the risk of injury.
  3. Technique improvement in sports: Athletes can benefit from refining their techniques to minimise excessive stress on the toe joint. Coaches and trainers play a pivotal role in educating athletes about proper form, foot positioning, and movement patterns to mitigate the risk of turf toe.

Preventive measures are not solely reserved for athletes! Anyone engaging in activities that involve repetitive stress on the toes can benefit from these strategies. Whether you are a weekend jogger, a fitness enthusiast, or a professional athlete, prioritising foot health and implementing preventive measures can go a long way in averting the onset of turf toe.5

Recovery and rehabilitation

Recovery from turf toe extends beyond the immediate relief of symptoms. It involves a structured rehabilitation process aimed at restoring normal function and preventing future issues. The journey back to full activity encompasses several key steps:7

  1. Gradual return to activities: Rushing back into regular activities can jeopardise the healing process. A gradual and phased return to sports or physical activities is crucial. This approach allows the injured ligaments to strengthen progressively, reducing the risk of re-injury.
  2. Monitoring progress: Regular monitoring of progress is essential during the recovery phase. Healthcare professionals and physiotherapists may assess a range of motion, strength, and overall functionality to ensure that the toe is healing optimally. Adjustments to the rehabilitation plan can be made based on this ongoing assessment. 

The duration of the recovery process can vary depending on the severity of the injury and how you respond to treatment. Patience and adherence to the prescribed rehabilitation plan are key components of a successful recovery.


In conclusion, turf toe emerges as a significant concern in the realm of sports injuries, requiring a comprehensive understanding from its anatomical roots to the nuances of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. The causes, intricately linked to biomechanics and playing surfaces, demonstrate the need for preventive measures, including proper footwear, warm-ups, and technique refinement. Diagnosis, a blend of physical examination and advanced imaging, sets the stage for tailored treatments, with recovery demanding patience and a phased return to activities. Turf toe, far from a footnote, becomes a narrative advocating for proactive foot health, ensuring each step is one of strength, resilience, and informed well-being in the pursuit of an active lifestyle.


  1. Clanton TO, Ford JJ. Turf toe injury. Clin Sports Med. 1994 Oct 1;13(4):731–41.
  2. McCormick JJ, Anderson RB. Turf toe: anatomy, diagnosis, and treatment. Sports Health [Internet]. 2010 Nov [cited 2023 Oct 5];2(6):487–94. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1941738110386681
  3. McCormick JJ, Anderson RB. The great toe: failed turf toe, chronic turf toe, and complicated sesamoid injuries. Foot and Ankle Clinics [Internet]. 2009 Jun 1 [cited 2023 Oct 5];14(2):135–50. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1083751509000138
  4. Najefi AA, Jeyaseelan L, Welck M. Turf toe. EFORT Open Rev [Internet]. 2018 Sep 24 [cited 2023 Oct 5];3(9):501–6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6174855/
  5. Turf toe: symptoms, treatment and prevention [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2023 Oct 5]. Available from: https://guilfordortho.com/turf-toe-symptoms-treatment-and-prevention/
  6. Poppe T, Reinhardt D, Tarakemeh A, Vopat BG, Mulcahey MK. Turf toe: presentation, diagnosis, and management. JBJS Reviews [Internet]. 2019 Aug [cited 2023 Oct 5];7(8):e7. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/jbjsreviews/abstract/2019/08000/turf_toe__presentation,_diagnosis,_and_management.8.aspx
  7. Seow D, Tengku Yusof TNB, Yasui Y, Shimozono Y, Kennedy JG. Treatment options for turf toe: a systematic review. The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery [Internet]. 2020 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Oct 5];59(1):112–6. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1067251619301553
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dr. Lewis Spencer

Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Derby

Lewis is a PhD graduate, where his research focus was on obesity and diabetes treatment with GLP-1 Receptor Agonists. He also has 6 years' experience as an Associate Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology and Research Methods. He is now working as a Health Information Specialist.

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