What Is Ship Foot?

Dan Cavallari

Ship foot occurs when a heavy load is dropped on a person's toe, causing that toe and toenail to bruise. Such an impact and subsequent bruising can lead to the death of the toenail, which means the nail may fall off from the toe. The term is believed to have originated centuries ago among sailors on gun ships; if the cannons recoiled and struck a sailor's toe, ship foot could occur and the toe would become bruised. The condition can happen in any setting, not just on ships, and it may accompany other injuries such as toe fractures.

Ship foot is an injury to a toenail caused by dropping a heavy load on it.
Ship foot is an injury to a toenail caused by dropping a heavy load on it.

A person suffering from ship foot will experience pain in the toe, and swelling in the affected toe is likely to occur as well. Ship foot also often causes discoloration of the toe and even part of the foot; the part of the toe under the toenail is most likely to bruise, causing purple, black, blue, and even red coloration. This is due to bleeding taking place underneath the toenail in many cases, and the best treatment when pain and discoloration occurs is the RICE treatment. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

There is no other specific treatment for ship foot unless the condition is accompanied by another more serious condition, such as a fracture. Even if the bone is fractured, the RICE treatment is still the best option unless the toe has become so severely fractured that surgery is necessary to repair the damage. This is a rare occurrence and would take an extremely significant impact for ship foot of this magnitude to occur. The bruising and discoloration of the toenail will eventually disappear as the toenail grows out, or if the toenail falls off altogether.

A person will very likely have difficulty walking while suffering from ship foot, which can lead to other pain in the foot, legs, or even the lower back. A person is likely to alter his or her gait to keep pressure off the toe, which can lead to muscle tightness in either leg or foot. An altered gait can also affect the proper functioning of the hips, which can in turn lead to lower back pain. This is why resting is an important part of the recovery process; not only does rest allow the injury to heal, it also prevents other muscles or parts of the body from becoming injured as a result.

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