Hallux rigidus is a degenerative joint condition which causes the big toe to stiffen; the term literally means “rigid big toe.” The big toe is one of the most unappreciated parts of human anatomy. When people walk, the toe flexes to stabilize the foot and to absorb part of the impact of the foot fall. Most people don't notice their toes until they develop problems, and hallux rigidus is one of the most common medical problems involving the toes.
This condition starts out as hallux limitus, in which someone has difficulty moving the big toe, but it is still functional. Over time, the toe stiffens even more, shortening the range of motion and causing pain for the patient. As the toe stiffens, the patient often develops difficulty walking because the toe can no longer flex as it naturally does to help the patient walk.
The cause of hallux rigidus is damage to the metatarsophalangeal joint, the joint which connects the big toe with the foot. This damage can come in the form of osteoarthritis or as the result of repeated injuries to the toe. The patient usually experiences soreness which can become quite painful, along with swelling around the joint. The joint may also appear reddened and inflamed. A doctor can diagnose hallux rigidus by performing an examination to determine the range of motion left in the toe and the amount of pain the patient experiences. X-rays may be taken to check for obvious signs of damage to the toe and joint as well.
The earlier hallux rigidus is caught, the better the outcome for the patient. The condition can be alleviated in the early stages with simple measures like corrective shoes, steroid medications to reduce inflammation, gentle physical therapy to increase flexibility, and injections of corticosteroids in the event of flareups. If the condition is allowed to progress to a serious state, it may be necessary to perform surgery to reconstruct or resurface the joint so that the patient can walk comfortably again.
People with a family history of hallux rigidus are more likely to develop this condition themselves. This condition is also associated with aging and people who have experienced foot injuries. People can take steps to prevent hallux ridigus by eating a healthy diet which promotes joint health, engaging in exercise to keep the joints strong and flexible, and being attentive to gait changes and pain in the joints, especially as they age.