Last week, the New York Jets lost their brand new quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, to a torn Achilles tendon. The problem came when he was sacked and fell on unforgiving turf, putting excess pressure on the tendon and causing it to rupture. In the wake of this injury, everyone from NFL players to our Houston podiatrist is talking about the trouble with engaging in athletic activities on an unforgiving surface like astroturf. Want to understand what all the fuss is about? Let’s dive in, together! 

Playing on Turf: What’s the Problem? 

In the wake of Rodgers’ season-ending injury, NFL Players Association executive director Lloyd Howell called for a switch from astroturf to grass in professional football stadiums. While acknowledging that there would be a significant cost associated with making the switch, it would be well worth the investment because it would significantly reduce “unnecessary injuries” to players.  Now, playing on turf isn’t the only reason why professional football players get hurt. After all, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quick to point out, J.K Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens also tore his Achilles tendon in the first week of play—and he was playing on a grass surface. 

Clearly, athletes playing at professional level intensity have to be concerned about both the force of their opponents and the surface on which they’re playing. But, for younger athletes, playing on turf is a serious concern. And here’s why. 

Turf has zero flexibility. So, when you plant your foot in the turf, kick off on it, run or fall on it, your toes, feet, ankles and tendons take the full impact of the force you’re exerting. The result? Sports injuries are far more common in athletes who play on turf, whether that means Achilles tendinitis, ruptured Achilles tendons, or the injury named specifically for this unforgiving surface: turf toe

What is Turf Toe? 

Turf toe is another way of describing a sprain of your great toe joint. You typically sustain this injury when you over extend your joint. And it includes the name ‘turf’ in the description since this injury commonly plagues football players, who have to suddenly push off and run on this artificial surface.  

Of course, turf toe is not a problem reserved exclusively for football players. And you can actually sustain this type of sprain on other surfaces as well. In fact, you can develop turf toe anytime you’ve already extended your joint, and a force pushes you backwards. At that point, your joint could hyperextend. Now, some players are immediately aware of the problem. But, because the injury is progressive, it can take a while to realize there’s a problem with your toe. Unfortunately, left untreated, turf toe can lead to the breakdown of your great toe joint. So, for that reason, it’s critical that you notice symptoms—and seek treatment—as soon as you sustain this injury. 

Turf Toe Symptoms: What to Watch For  Aaron Rodgers, who injured his Achilles tendon by playing on turf

You can divide turf toe symptoms into two stages: the ones you experience right after the acute injury, and the ones you will develop if you try and play through the pain, without seeking treatment. 

Immediately after spraining your big toe joint, you’ll experience pain. Shortly after that initial discomfort, a bruise is likely to develop at the base of the big toe. (With more severe injuries, you could even notice dislocation in your toe.) Either way, these are warning signs. Your body is letting you know that your toe ligaments have been overstretched or torn. And that means it’s time to make an appointment with your podiatrist in Houston. Otherwise, your symptoms will change and progress. Plus, you’ll increase your risk for joint disintegration and arthritis

But how could anyone ignore such a painful injury, you may be wondering? Here’s the story. After that first burst of pain, your symptoms will change. Now, your toe could feel stiff, with limited mobility. And, while walking may be uncomfortable, it will still be possible. Because of this fact, some people choose to ignore their symptoms and keep playing and training. Unfortunately, as we mentioned, doing so causes progression of your symptoms. Even worse? It also increases your risk for other injuries in the future. So, for that reason, we urge you to treat turf toe as soon as you notice pain in your big toe. 

Diagnosing and Treating Turf Toe Injuries in Houston

In order to diagnose your sprained great toe joint, we’ll conduct a physical exam and take a full history. In most cases, this combination will point to turf toe, since this injury is so closely related to athletic activity. In some case, however, we’ll also need to order x-rays during your exam. This will help rule out other injuries, such as foot or toe fractures. Plus, if you’ve been dealing with turf toe for a while, diagnostic imaging can tell us if arthritis has already set into the joint. 

After diagnosing your injury, we can begin crafting your treatment plan. Here’s the good news: we can usually treat turf toe without surgery. But there’s a caveat: your treatment plan depends on how quickly you seek medical care following your injury, along with the severity of your sprain.  

Luckily, we can offer both conservative and surgical turf toe treatment. Conservative measures include splinting or taping your great toe in order to keep it stable and limit your pain. Resting, icing and using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication can also help. Some patients may also benefit from placing thin, carbon-steel insoles into their shoes, in order to limit movement in the joint while allowing them to stay active. An added benefit of this treatment option is that you can use these insoles while wearing custom orthotics. In combination, the insole and orthotic support your injured joint to reduce your pain, while also controlling the mechanics of your lower extremity to optimize your movements.   .

Now, if your condition doesn’t improve with conservative treatment, you may need surgery. There are several different surgical approaches to repairing a turf toe injury, and the one we select will depend on the severity of your injury, and whether or not you have also developed arthritis in the joint. 

Of course, in our Houston podiatry practice, our goal is to help you heal as naturally as possible, with the least amount of down time. That’s why we are constantly adding new regenerative medicine treatments to the practice, and why we always try conservative treatment methods before sending you into surgery. But, in order to make this goal a reality, we need your help—you have to come into the office right after your injury to maximize your odds of avoiding surgery. Already dealing with pain or stiffness in your big toe? Come into the office right away! As soon as we see you, we’ll get you on the fastest possible road to recovery. 

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