While it might not be particularly common, or even that concerning—it’s just a toe after all— when your big toe goes numb, it can certainly get your attention. And for good reason; it’s usually an early warning sign that something more significant is going on. You should be especially concerned if it’s happening often or in on-again-off-again episodes and with certain activities. The good news is, addressing it when you first start to notice it may save you more advanced damage in the future.
Big toe numbness can be caused by circulation problems or a nerve issue in the toe itself, but more often than not, the low back is the culprit. Let’s look at the link between the low back and big toe numbness.
Big Toe Numbness and Your Low Back
Believe it or not, one of those significant issues that can present as big toe numbness stems from the low back. In the lumbar spine, the nerve that exits the spine at the L5 level branches down through the hip, thigh, knee, lower leg, and, yes, all the way into the foot and toes. So a pinched or irritated nerve at that L5 level in the back can create problems, such as pain, numbness, tingling, and so on, anywhere along the nerve branch.
So what can irritate the L5 spinal nerve? The list is long, but it includes disc issues, such as herniated or bulging discs; arthritis in the spinal joints (inflammation can put pressure on the nerves); back injuries; foraminal stenosis, which is when the channels that the nerves run through narrow (and can be caused from any of the above); and so on.
Interestingly, your back may not even hurt if you have a pinched or irritated spinal nerve. The body works in fascinating ways, and big toe numbness may be the body’s way of throwing up an early warning flag to let us know there’s danger up ahead if we don’t intervene now. Big toe numbness today may be big toe pain and stiffness tomorrow. Next thing you know you’ve developed bunions (bone spurs), you have knee pain (maybe even progressing arthritis) due to stability issues, and more damage is being done to the spine you never had checked, which keeps the damage cycle in motion.
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While low back issues are a common instigator of big toe numbness, there are other issues that could be at play.
Big Toe Numbness and Other Issues
Arthritis in the big toe is less likely to cause numbness and more likely to make the toe stiff or painful. Bunions themselves, which are often caused by a low back issue, can put pressure on surrounding structures and create big toe numbness in the process. Tendon injuries should also be considered when tracing the source of the numbness, especially when other symptoms are also present, such as alternating pain and numbness.
With arthritis of big toe, a big toe fusion, which involves fusing two or more toe bones together to make them immovable or removing and replacing the big toe join, is often the surgical solution. These invasive major surgeries result in lengthy recovery times and can create more problems than they solve.
The flexor hallucis longus tendon can also become injured. This tendon stretches along the underside of the big toe, and damage to it can cause stiffness in the toe. You may also experience symptoms as far up as your ankle. If your big toe numbness has progressed to pain and even debilitation, this tendon needs to be considered.
When Conservative Measures Fail to Relieve Big Toe Numbness
If conservative measures, such as rest and physical therapy, are unable to address your big toe numbness, it’s time to have your toe examined by an interventional orthopedic physician who can determine the source. Whether it’s the lower back, the big toe itself, or both, an injection of platelet growth factors may be all you need to address the problem.
In order address your big toe numbness, it’s important that you don’t delay examination. It’s best find the source and treat it quickly before that early warning signal becomes a full-on train wreck. Surgery is typically a much less than ideal solution, so it’s a good idea to seek nonsurgical regenerative medicine solutions first.