Hallux Limitus/Rigidus Part 1



Hallux Limitus/Rigidus Part 1

A 55-year-old male comes into his podiatrist office complaining of pain in the area of his big toe after he finishes his morning walks. He noticed that there is swelling and he has trouble bending his toe because of the pain. He recently noticed a bump at the base of the toe in the area where the big toe bends.  Because of the size of the bump he is starting to have difficulty wearing his running shoes. What could be the cause of his pain?

What are Hallux Limitus and Hallux Rigidus?

The hallux, or big toe, plays an important role in our ability to walk normally. The motion of this toe provides us with pushoff force necessary to lift our foot off of the ground while walking. In order to accomplish this, the hallux normally bends upward (or dorsiflexes) You can see this occur if you lift your heel up while keeping the front of your foot on the ground. In a healthy foot there is a smooth gliding, around 60 degrees of upward motion at the joint where the 1st metatarsal and the big toe bone meets.

Hallux limitus is a condition that describes limited motion of the big toe joint. This limitation in motion is caused by jamming of the big toe into the 1st metatarsal bone, thereby inhibiting the ability to bend the big toe without pain. This condition occurs at the 1st metatarsal-phalangeal joint (1st MTPJ), which is the joint between the hallux and 1st metatarsal. As the hallux and metatarsal move in an abnormal relationship they do not glide they now scrape against each other with uneven and excessive forces.  When this occurs extra bone formations develope, called spurs or osteophytes. These appear in order to disperse the force generated from the friction. Unfortunately, this extra bone leads to more pain and further limitation to the joint motion. The condition can eventually progress to a degenerative arthritic disease called hallux rigidus. At this stage, the motion at the joint approches zero degrees. In a final stage fusion or bone bridging across the joint occurs. Further advancment of this condition can lead to pain in other parts of the lower extremity. This may occur because other muscles, bones and joints will be forced to compensate or function abnormally to make up for the lack of motion of the big toe.

What causes it?

This condition can be caused by a number of factors. Some people have biomechanical abnormalities, such as flat feet, that can lead to imbalances that cause jamming and rubbing of the hallux against the metatarsal. Traumatic events like turf toe injuries or simply accidental injury of the big toe can lead to this condition as well. Wearing shoegear such as high heels can increase the risk of occurrence. Hereditary arthritic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can also be the inciting factor. Inflammatory joint conditions such as gout can lead to deformity at this joint as well.

Clinical Presentation

Symptoms that generally appear early in the course of hallux limitus are a throbbing, achy pain when moving the big toe and inflammation or swelling at the location of the 1st MTPJ. Cold weather can exacerbate the symptoms. As the disease progresses, the pain may become constant and will be present even when not wearing shoes. A hard ridge of bone may develop on the top of the 1st MTPJ.  A grinding sensation may be felt when the toe is moved up and down this is known as crepitus. It is a sign that the joint cartilage is warning out and now raw bone on one side of the joint is rubbing against the raw bone on the other side.

As this condition progresses the hallux is no longer able to function properly while walking, other structures in the foot and lower extremity are forced to change the way they normally function. This can lead to pain in other joints of the foot or ankle; eventually knee, hip or lower back pain may develop.


If a patient presents with the symptoms described above, x-ray studies are performed to confirm the diagnosis. These images usually reveal abnormalities in the 1st MTPJ space. There is usually an uneven loss of the joint space compared to the other joints of the same foot.

Small pieces of bone called osteophytes or spurs may also be seen in the joint space, along with thickening of the margins (sclerosis) of the involved bones, both of which are indicative of this arthritic process.

Look for our next installment Hallux limitus/rigidus Part 2: Treatment


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