Exercises to Help With Arthritis in the Big Toe

Last updated: 06-09-2021

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Exercises to Help With Arthritis in the Big Toe

Exercises can help with arthritis in the big toe because they increase range of motion and strength. Stretching and strengthening exercises can also help your toes become more flexible and relaxed, effectively reducing stiffness and risk of injury and improving joint function.1 Depending on your arthritis severity, you may be restricted to shorter and gentler exercises at first, but sticking to an exercise routine will help increase your joint mobility. Once your active range of motion (AROM) is better, you will be able to increase exercise length and intensity.

Exercises
Your doctor or physical therapist will help you determine which exercises are safest and most suitable for your big toe pain caused by arthritis. They will also offer guidance as to how many sets and reps you should aim for initially and over time.

The American College of Rheumatology recommends the following for exercising with arthritis:1

Active range of motion exercises should be performed for at least two sets of 10 repetitions.
Stretching exercises should be performed at least four to five days a week, with each stretch lasting for about 20 to 30 seconds and repeated two to three times.
Strengthening exercises for most people should be done four to five days a week, with eight to 10 repetitions for each exercise. Older patients may find 10 to 15 repetitions with less resistance to be more appropriate.
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Toe Pulls
Toe pulls are basic stretching exercises that help increase mobility in the big toe joints. Mobility here is essential for maintaining a normal walking pattern, or gait.


To perform this exercise:

Put your affected foot up on a stool or a chair.
Stabilize your foot by holding it just proximal to (nearer to the center of) the area where the toes meet the foot.
Using your other hand, hold your big toe and gently pull it forward and flex it down toward the sole until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold this for 10 to 20 seconds before letting go. You can also hold it for longer, as long as you don’t get cramps in your fingers.
Optional: Gently massage the arch of your foot with the other hand during the stretch.

Big Toe Extension Stretch
This exercise is particularly useful for people with big toe stiffness and heel pain caused by plantar fasciitis. The end goal is being able to stretch your big toe at a 90-degree angle toward your ankle. Achieving this may take several days or weeks of exercise.2


To perform this exercise:

While sitting in a chair, put your affected foot up on your other knee.
Hold the heel of the affected foot in one hand and use your other hand to pull the big toe back toward the ankle until you feel a gentle stretch along the bottom of your foot.
This stretch should be held for at least 15 to 30 seconds at a time. If you’re having difficulty, try shorter hold times where you put the pressure on and off more frequently.

Towel Curl
The towel curl helps build strength in the big toe and should be attempted when you have reasonable joint mobility. After you’ve adapted to this exercise while sitting, you can increase the intensity by doing the exercise while standing.3

To perform this exercise:

While sitting, place a small hand towel on the ground and rest your affected foot on top of it.
Scrunch the towel toward you by curling your toes, and then push the towel away from you by spreading out your toes.
The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests that strengthening programs, including stretching the big toe in towel curls and marble pickups, may be more helpful compared with orthotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), ice, steroid injection, heat, heel cups, night splints, walking, plantar strapping, and shoe changes.4

Toe Press, Point, and Curl
This exercise engages your whole foot, and helps improve mobility, strength, and overall balance. Research has shown that toe curl exercises can improve quality of life, reduce pain, and improve ability to perform daily activities.3


To perform this exercise:

Sit in a straight-back chair with your feet flat on the floor.
Press your toes into the ground and raise your heel.
Point your toes while keeping your heel raised (first and second toes stay touching the ground).
Curl your toes under so the tops of the toes are touching the ground, and keep your heel raised.
Cycle through the three movements, pausing to hold each position for five seconds. (You can do this one foot at a time or with both feet.)
Toe Splay
Toe splaying targets the muscles within your foot, helping you gain control and strength in this area.

To perform this exercise:

Sit in a straight-back chair with your feet resting on the floor.
Spread your toes out as wide as you can and hold for five seconds. (You can do this with one foot at a time or with both feet.)
If that’s too easy, you can loop a hair tie or rubber band around your toes before you spread them out to add some resistance.
Marble Pickup
This strengthening exercise can also be done with small household items such as dice. Begin with four or five and perform the exercise on each side, eventually working your way up to the below mentioned 10 to 20 marbles.2

To perform this exercise:

Sit down in a chair.
Set 10 to 20 marbles out in front of you to one side of the chair (either in bowls or on a carpet).
Using the toes of one foot, grab one marble at a time and move it to the other side of the chair.
Once you’ve moved all the marbles, do the same thing to return them one by one to where they were when you started.
Toe Salutes
This is another great stretch that builds strength. The goal is to go slowly to remain in control of your other toes, which should remain on the ground.

To perform this exercise:

Sit in a chair with your feet relaxed on the ground under your knees.
Raise the big toe of your right foot off the ground and hold it there for five seconds while keeping the other toes on the ground.
Return your big toe to the ground.
Then lift your other four toes off the ground while keeping your big toe on the ground and hold them there for five seconds.
Finally, return them to the ground. Repeat the exercise with your left foot.

Toe Squeezing
Toe squeezing targets the muscles within your foot and strengthens them. These muscles play an essential role in overall foot flexibility, stability, and shock absorption when walking or running.

To perform this exercise:

Place foam or flexible plastic separators between your toes (you can find these online sold as pedicure toe separators).
Squeeze your toes together for 10 seconds, then relax.
Resisted Toe Flexion
This strengthening exercise may require some mobility work before attempting. If you experience pain while trying this, stop and return to gentler exercises aimed at increasing range of motion. If you find this exercise too easy with a light-resistance band, trade up for a higher-resistance option.

To perform this exercise:

Wrap a light-resistance band around the back of your big toe.
Hold the ends so that there’s light tension on the band when your toe is pointed up toward your ankle.
Push your toe against the band, back toward the floor to be in line with the other toes.
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A Word From Verywell
Exercises can help you improve the mobility and range of motion of your big toe if you have arthritis in this joint. It can even help relieve some of your pain. Consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, and always listen to your body when engaging in physical activity. It’s better to start slowly rather than try everything at once and risk injury or making your condition worse. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor or physiotherapist. They will be able to suggest different kinds of exercises or modify them to fit your needs.


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