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.
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."