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Sharp Health News

Give me a break!

May 24, 2017

Give me a break!

It can happen anywhere: on a soccer field, in a dark hallway or in broad daylight in your kitchen.

Slamming your foot into an object that stops your leg’s forward motion can result in a broken toe, not to mention an unpleasant jolt of pain. You might also have the misfortune of dropping a heavy object on your foot with the same outcome.

And our fingers are vulnerable, too — subject to breakage when striking an object with force; misjudging a groundball and catching it barehanded; or getting a finger caught in the dog’s collar.

While breaking your digits can be quite painful, the good news is that surgery is usually not necessary. Dr. Kristopher Downing, a board-certified hand and upper extremity surgeon affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, responds to several questions about these common fractures, how to treat them and when to seek medical attention.

Is there a difference between a break and a fracture?
A break and a fracture are synonymous. Fractures of the fingers and toes can be one of three types: spiral, oblique or transverse. Spiral fractures occur via torsion (twisting) and look like a barber pole stripe. Oblique fractures are diagonal. Transverse fractures are straight across. Oblique and transverse fractures occur via bending forces. Sometimes fractures are of the impaction type, commonly known as jamming.

When the fracture does not involve a break in the skin, it is termed a closed fracture. Conversely, an open fracture is when a break in the skin occurs over or near a fracture site.

What are the associated symptoms of a break or fracture?
Symptoms of a break or fracture include mild to severe pain, swelling, deformity or inability to bear weight on the affected digit. Deformities can be angular or rotational.

What should a person do if they think they’ve broken a digit?
If you think you’ve broken a finger or toe, you should avoid use of the digit. Do not bear weight on it, and it’s best to get an X-ray to confirm whether it’s fractured. Ice and elevate the area to minimize swelling and pain.

When should one go to the doctor or ER to seek medical attention?
Seek medical attention if there is pain that is not subsiding, or if there is deformity or associated breaks in the skin or lacerations.

What treatment is generally given? When would it involve surgery?
Many finger fractures can be treated without surgery. Minor finger fractures can be treated with a splint, but finger fractures with associated displacement or bones that are bent or crushed, or with associated open wounds, usually require surgery.

Most toe fractures can be treated without surgery using a hard-soled shoe that allows for weight bearing but prevents the forces associated with walking from being transmitted through the forefoot (the part of the foot that includes the metatarsal bones and bones of the toes).

How long does it take to heal?
Most finger and toe fractures will heal in four to six weeks with or without surgery. However, swelling of the fingers and toes related to fractures and the associated sprains of the joints, will take three to six months to nearly completely resolve. Possible complications, with or without surgery, include permanent swelling, stiffness or deformity.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Downing for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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