Health and wellness

Toes and toenails: what they are good for and why they hurt so much when we stub them

Toes put up with a lot of pressure for their size. They help us balance on two legs. They were used in Japanese art to show sexual pleasure, and people born with too many were revered in some civilisations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 8:09pm

Toes may appear a fairly redundant – and certainly strange looking – part of the anatomy, but they serve several important purposes. Most significantly, they help to support the weight of the body and maintain balance.

Appropriately named Karlyn Harfoot, a Hong Kong-based chiropodist and podiatrist, says that although the foot is the most stressed part of the body, it is also “the most neglected” (perhaps more pedicures are in order?).

Toes are crucial to the functioning of our feet, she says. While walking and running, toes touch the ground almost 75 per cent of the time. The big toes are the real heroes – able to bear up to almost twice the weight as all your other toes combined.

The big toe is even more amazing in terms of evolution. Scientists at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg have identified that the base of the big toe (the hallux) is what allows humans to walk upright – making us different from apes whose toes are more like thumbs, able to grip objects and climb.

But our big toes go above and beyond their balancing and supporting functions – by turning into a thumb. Toe-to-thumb surgery has become a life-changing operation for those who may have severely injured thumbs.

The strangest abnormality seen in toes is polydactylism – a birth defect which leaves babies with extra toes or fingers. The Guinness World Record for the most fingers and toes is held by an Indian boy, Akshat Saxena – born in 2011 with 14 fingers and 20 toes. His extra digits were reportedly removed. Although we might consider this a little strange today, in some ancient cultures, having an extra toe made you more honourable.

The ancient Mayans considered polydactyls to be supernatural and in the Pueblo culture of the Chaco Canyon, New Mexico 1,000 years ago, those with an extra toe were revered and given a higher status in life and death. Perhaps someone should have told Oprah Winfrey that before she had her 11th toe removed?

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The little toes are much less important than our big toes. They affect our balance and support so minutely that people who are born without them, or lose them in an accident, experience almost no difference.

Harfoot states that, according to William Rossi’s book, The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, the littlest toe, or ‘pinky’, is so useless, some women have reportedly had them removed to fit into certain shoes! Yet, if they are this useless, why is it still so excruciatingly painful to stub your toe against a table leg or wardrobe corner?

According to Brock Healy, director and principal podiatrist of Hong Kong Foot Clinic, this is “opposed to any functional benefit” and simply “due to the strong blood and nerve supply to the area”. This may be because hands and feet are our principal interface and touch navigators to the world, and so must be packed full of nerve endings to relay important sensory information to the brain and central nervous system – despite how unnecessarily painful that information might be.

And what about toenails? Harfoot says a toenail takes around nine months to grow from the base to edge of the toe. Interestingly, they tend to grow faster in summer than in winter – ready for flip-flop and pedicure season.

Back in time, toenails may have been more useful to us; some experts believe they were once used to pick things up in the way fingernails might nowadays. This is a pretty gross consideration when you remember the fungi and bacteria hiding beneath them – clinging on with the help of the foot’s 125,000 sweat glands.

Toes can cause several other issues for your feet: hammer, claw and mallet toes caused by bending at certain joints, bunions (a rotation in the foot’s metatarsal bones causing toes to be pulled across and leave deformities) and corns and calluses which arise from rubbing against shoes.

Healy states that calluses and corns are best dealt with by wearing correctly fitting shoes or treated by a podiatrist. A particular bad stub could also lead to a broken toe, which takes up to six weeks to heal.

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Happily, toes aren’t only a stimulus to pain, and can sometimes be the receiver of pleasure; the area of your brain that receives sensory information from your feet is located right next to the area that receives information from your genitals.

According to the director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, Vilayanur Ramachandran, foot fetishes may be the result of a cross-wiring in the brain between these two sensory areas. Rossi’s The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe references the phrase, “making your toes curls” as a podosexual reality.

Toes are such a symbol for sexual pleasure that for at least eight centuries, some Japanese art used curled toes to depict eroticism. Unfortunately for some, however, foot size has nothing to do with penis size, despite urban legends. This myth was debunked after researchers looks at the various measurements of more than 15,000 men – whose penis’ size bore no relation to their height, body mass or shoe size.

Some experts suggest that your feet generally portray your overall health. Symptoms of illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes and nerve and circulatory disorders may begin in the feet. Time, then, that we all began to pay greater attention to our toes and all the secrets they could be hiding.