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Big Toe Mobility Plays a Key Role in Preventing Running Injuries

Tootsies, piggies, digits. These are all different names we use to describe our toes. We often don’t think about our toes' role in day-to-day movement. Sure, we know that we can’t walk without feet, but when was the last time you really thought about your toes?

There are 28 bones in the feet. 26 of which make up your toes. They are the Tarsal bones (5 that make up the arch of the foot), Metatarsals (5 bones that make up the forefoot), 14 phalanges (the big toe has only 2 the other toes have 3) and the sesamoid bones. These floating bones sit beneath the head of the first metatarsal of the big toe. There are also 29 muscles in the foot. All of these tiny bones and muscles are connected by tendons and ligaments that allow our feet and toes to stretch, support and move all of the structures above them.

Turns out our toes, our big toe, in particular, play an even greater role in movement than we realize. More importantly, they play a key role in preventing many running injuries.

Why is the big toe so important? Millions of years of evolution gave humans the ability to stand upright. Our butts got bigger to keep us from falling over, and our toes got shorter to give us more power, allowing for greater speed when running away from things that were trying to kill us. Your big toe is also the only one that if you were in an accident, would need to be replaced in order for you to walk again.

As we evolved, we needed a way to maintain balance, aid in movement, and absorb the impact of the ground beneath us. The big toe does all this and more.

Balance - The big toe is responsible for supporting the arch of your foot. It also controls the body’s ability in the direction of movement. The big toe also makes it possible to balance on one leg and not fall over when standing on tip-toes.

Movement - When we are walking or running, our big toe allows us to move in a sagittal plane (forward/backward) and controls pronation or the inward roll of the ankle and temporary collapse of the arch. The metatarsal and phalanx, together with the flexor hallicus muscle, bend and push the toe off the ground, so the opposite leg is propelled forward. Being able to control pronation ensures that the proper load is distributed to the plantar fascia.

Shock absorption - Because the big toe controls the arch of the foot and is responsible for even distribution of load on the plantar fascia, this means it has plays a key role in absorbing the shock of your foot hitting the ground.

What kinds of running injuries can be caused by big toe dysfunctions? A big toe that lacks

strength and proper joint mobility, can contribute to injuries such as:

  • Turf Toe

  • Stress fractures of the forefoot

  • Plantar Fasciitis

  • Ankle instability

  • Shin splints

  • tight calves

  • ACL tears

  • Medial and lateral knee pain

  • Hip pain

How does your big toe get immobilized? The invention of shoes seemed like the greatest thing since sliced bread. Afterrall, wearing shoes protected our feet from things on the ground that could hurt us, but they also created problems with the natural function of our feet and toes. The consistent wearing of shoes weakened the muscles in our feet, cramped our toes together and created conditions like bunions, corns and plantar fasciitis. Stiff soled shoes block our toes’ natural ability to flex when pushing off as we walk or run. Over time, this can cause the joint to become stiff. Narrow shoes and high heels push the toes together in the toe box causing the joint to become misaligned. This causes what is known as toe valgus (bunions) and studies have shown a direct correlation between an increase in toe valgus and knee injuries in barefoot runners. High heels also force the toes into constant extension making them stiffen due to constant pressure. Another study reported that for every degree of toe valgus, it increased pronation by .6 degrees. Arthritic changes can also cause big toe dysfunction due to the joints fusing together and becoming unable to flex.

There are way you can help mitigate the effects of joint immobility in the big toe. Just like the hips, ankles, shoulders and knees, the big toe needs daily mobility to keep from getting stiff.

Testing your big toe mobility - In order to know how much mobility your big toe has you can do some basic mobility tests. You should be able to move your big toe independently of your other t

oes. You should be able to lift it up or down without lifting your other toes. You should also be able to abduct (move away from midline) your big toe without lifting your toes, your heel or rotating your tibia. Here’s a great video on how to test toe mobility.

How to I increase the mobility in my big toe? Unless your joint mobility is being compromised by arthritic change or excessive toe valgus that is painful, there are ways to help improve

your toe mobility.

Toes spacing - Items such as yoga toes can help to increase the space between toes and are great for helping to reverse toe crowding.

Joint mobilization - Moving your toe joint in circles or stretching the metatarsal joint into flexion and extension by grabbing your big toe and gently moving the joints independently of the other toes can help increase toe mobility after being in shoes all day.

Toe strengthening - Picking up marbles, scrunching up a facecloth on the floor or using resistance bands made for your feet are great for strengthening your foot arch. If you don’t have resistance bands, you can also practice abducting your toes by moving them away from the midline and without lifting up your other toes.

P.S. it’s not as easy as it looks.

Massage - Getting a good foot massage or reflexology treatment can help restore function and mobility in your big toe, ease some of the symptoms of pain in the foot or legs, and increase help your speed, strength and stability.

If you’re interested in working with a massage therapist to relieve your big toe problems or other running injuries, or if you have more questions about whether or not massage is right for you, you can book online 24/7 or call the office (603) 370-9193 to set up an appointment.

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