Do I have hallux limitus? (Why does my big toe hurt when I step on it?)

Hallux limitus pain and treatment

Get treatment for your toe pain so you can enjoy your favorite activities again!

At-home treatments, exercises and footwear for functional hallux limitus

If you feel pain and/or stiffness in your big toe joint when standing or walking, it could be arthritis.

Hallux limitus and hallux rigidus (literally: big toe stiffness) are the terms used to describe mild to severe arthritis in the big toe joint.

Hallux varus is a type of toe deformity that can be caused by arthritis in the toe joint.

Losing range of motion in the 1st metatarsophalangeal joint (MTP—the joint where your big toe meets your foot) can restrict the activities you enjoy and make everyday walking painful.

Ignoring discomfort from hallux limitus will only make things worse. Walking with a compromised toe joint can lead to calluses, corns, bone spurs, bunions or an abnormal gait pattern (walking on the side of your foot to avoid putting weight on the big toe joint). Eventually untreated hallux limitus can cause pain and problems in your knees, hips and back.

How to keep big toe joint pain from devastating your feet

The first step is getting the pain and stiffness in your big toe checked out by a doctor. Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment and improves your chances of avoiding surgery.

In most cases hallux limitus can be diagnosed with a physical examination of the joint by an experienced podiatrist. Sometimes an X-ray is needed to assess bone spurs and damage to cartilage.

Once your podiatrist has ruled out other possible causes of toe pain, he or she will develop a treatment plan for you.

Functional vs Structural Hallux Limitus

Functional hallux limitus is when the big toe joint has limited range of motion while walking/bearing weight (during normal foot function). There is typically not much joint degeneration.

Structural hallux limitus is when there is a structural misalignment of the foot bone (typically the first metatarsal bone is too long or elevated). When a foot deformity keeps the joint from moving smoothly, it jams and develops arthritis.

Functional hallux limitus (especially when diagnosed early) usually responds well to conservative treatment. People with severe or constant pain, extremely limited range of motion or bone spurs may require surgery to find relief.

Functional Hallux Limitus Treatments

Ideally, non-surgical treatments for functional hallux limitus will let you get back to the activities you enjoy without pain (or with minimal pain). Always check with your podiatrist before trying to treat hallux limitus on your own.

Hallux Limitus Exercises

For the health of your feet, you should always see a podiatrist for a diagnosis of your toe pain before attempting to self-treat. Always follow the instructions of your doctor of physical therapist during treatment.

Flexing and extending your MTP joint: Manually flexing and extending your big toe can help improve range of motion in the joint. You can rest your foot on the opposite knee and carefully use your hands to bend your big toe forwards and back, holding for 30 seconds at the limit of each range of motion.

Dorsiflexion range of motion exercise: While barefoot, spread your toes as wide as you can without using your hands. Then press all your toes together. Hold for a few seconds in each position and repeat as directed by your doctor or physical therapist.

Long and strong flexibility stretch: Hold your foot with one hand and use the other hand to gently pull on your big toe, directly away from the socket. Carefully rotate your toe clockwise and counterclockwise.

Going back to go forward: Use your hands to bend your big toe back (toward the top of your foot) as far as you can without serious pain. Hold for up to 30 seconds, release, and flex your toe a few times without using your hands before repeating the stretch.

Manipulation and Massage

Some people have found relief from hallux limitus pain with chiropractic manipulation or massage therapy.


Kinesiotaping (KT taping) the big toe joint can limit range of motion and relieve pain.


Custom orthotics can relieve pain and control range of motion to effectively treat big toe joint pain when walking or running. Over the counter orthotics can help some people, but for the best results keeping your hallux limitus in a manageable state you’re better off getting custom orthotics right from the start.

Cortisone injections

Your podiatrist may recommend steroid injections into the big toe joint to relieve inflammation and help orthotics and other treatments work better.

Shoes for Hallux Limitus/Rigidus

There are several shoe manufacturers who make shoes specifically for people suffering from hallux limitus or rigidus. Common characteristics of hallux limitus footwear are:

  • A shoe with plenty of room in the toe box to reduce pressure
  • Supportive shoes with sturdy/inflexible soles keep your feet stable and limitmovement of the big toe joint
  • A rounded sole (rocker bottom) or controls motion and makes walking easier

Custom orthotics and the right footwear can go a long way in making life with hallux limitus more comfortable.

Milwaukee Podiatrists Experienced in Treating Arthritis in the Big Toe Joint

Whether you're suffering from mild or severe toe arthritis (or a completely different cause of toe pain) the surgical podiatrists of Advanced Foot & Ankle of Wisconsin will identify the problem and the best course of treatment. With five podiatry clinics in the Milwaukee area, caring staff and patient financing for out-of-pocket costs, we make it easy to get the care you need.

Don't wait for toe pain to get worse! Contact a Milwaukee podiatrist treating hallux limitus today to schedule an appointment.