Toe Joint Fusion Recovery: One Patient’s Story

toe joint fusion recovery

This week I met a patient who had a toe joint fusion. However, this was a disaster of sorts. The good news was that her toe felt better, but the bad news was that her ankle felt worse. Why? Because her toe joint fusion recovery was a long-drawn-out process that forced energy from her toe to her ankle. Let me explain.

Big Toe Arthritis and Hallux Rigidus

Big toe arthritis for some of us happens as we age. It’s more common in women, and we’ve observed it’s more common in people with chronic low-back pain. When it gets bad, it can result in lost range of motion in the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint, and the medical term for this is hallux rigidus (Latin for rigid toe). For some bizarre reason, one of the treatments is to fuse the MTP joint solid with one or more screws. As with any fusion, this surgery is a dog with fleas.

Fusion Is a Dog with Fleas

Surgically fusing joints together has become big business over the last two decades. From a business standpoint, you can take a medical screw or plate made in China for $5 and sell it for $1000 or more. Given those profit margins, there is an entire army of orthopedic sales reps who sell this hardware to surgeons and hospitals. Hence, given the business plan, it’s not surprising that fusion surgery has become so popular.

I always tell my patients that a fusion is a dog with fleas. Meaning that while the surgery can sometimes help one problem by making it not move, it usually causes others. In the spine, there’s a name for this problem: adjacent segment disease, or ASD. This diagnosis means that once you fuse two vertebrae solid, the forces that should have been handled by that area get shunted to others, which break down more quickly. I don’t know what’s more medically screwed up, that we are aware that fusing one area can hurt others or that it’s so common that we had to create a medical diagnosis for the problem.

My Patient This Week

The woman I saw this week was actually in to have her low back treated. During that visit, she mentioned that her right ankle was hurting. She also recounted how a big toe fusion recovery that she endured was awful in that it took a full year before she felt somewhat normal. She also stated that a few months after her big-toe fusion, the ankle began to hurt. Her ankle was tender and so was her big toe, despite the fusion. So I explained what I have drawn in the picture above. That fusion of the big-toe joint was transmitting forces up the kinetic chain to the ankle, so it wasn’t surprising that her ankle now hurt. Given that there is no way to undo the big toe fusion surgery, outside of treating her ankle to keep it hanging in there, there was no solution to that issue.

The upshot? Big toe fusion recovery often includes new places that crop up with pain. Not all patients put two and two together, and in this patient’s case, her surgeon came up with an explanation for her ankle that avoided the obvious. However, when you fuse the big toe, that energy has to go someplace. Also, this alters your gait in ways that can’t easily be fixed. Hence, don’t immediately buy in when a fusion is recommended, and get lots of opinions. While there are a few medical problems that truly need a fusion, based on my experience, this surgery should never be used as a way to commonly treat pain with surgery.




*DISCLAIMER: Like all medical procedures, Regenexx® Procedures have a success and failure rate. Patient reviews and testimonials on this site should not be interpreted as a statement on the effectiveness of our treatments for anyone else.
Read 11 Comments
    1. Jed,
      Yes, that’s how we treat big toe arthritis. It’s also important to determine why you have arthritis in your big toe, and not other toes, or your ankle, etc…and treat that as well. The average LEFS score (which is lower extremity functional score) for men is around 60 out of a possible 80.

  1. I had big toe fusion 2 years ago. While I have nor experienced a lot of ankel pain, I am now having a probelm with the smaller big toe joint above the one that was fused. It is taking all the “heat”. I have tried prolo and platelet injections without success. One thing that does help is regular PT and manipulation with a therapist that really specialized in feet which is hard to find. I go at least monthly and it is keeping it calmed down for the meantime. I also tape it anytime I hike or walk or use a treadmill or elliptical.

    I hope this is helpful.

    1. Cheri,
      So many of the problems we see are as a result of the type of care people have received, as the strucural paradigm of modern Medicine looks at the body as disperate unrelated parts. So identifying the actual cause or causes of the extreme toe joint pain and treating those issues using precise image guided injections of your own stem cells and or platelets to repair the problems, rather than creating additional ones, is what we’d recommend. Please see: and

  2. I had my ankle treated by you in Grand Cayman about a year ago and the subsequent improvement has allowed me to resume some pretty rigorous hiking in the steep hills around my home, but now that I’m hiking more the ankle improvement has slowed or maybe plateaued. After reading about the big toe connection I’m thinking that maybe treating my big toe arthritis could help my ankle continue to improve. I’ve not had a toe fusion but it it stiff and turned to the side due to a bunion. Can stem cells help the bunion and the big toe flexibility? I still have cells stored at the Cayman facility.

  3. I have had bilateral big toe titanium implants in my big toes. By xray, the implants look fine, but the first toes are about 3/4 to one inch shorter than the second toes. The result is metatarsalgia in toes 2 through 5. Is there anything you can do to help stop the pain?

    Thanks very much

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