top of page


Canadian Medical Alliance for the Preservation of the Lower Extremity



Surgical Offloading of Wounds of the Great Toe


We discuss traditional, conservative, non-surgical  ways to offload a wound here.  


And we discuss why surgical offloading is a concept worth considering generally, even in patients who may be traditionally slow to heal here.  If you haven't read that page, it might be worth starting with that page before reading this page.  

Here we discuss some of the more specific ways we might wish to

surgically offload an ulcer on the great toe (or hallux, in medical terminology).


And we discuss why surgically addressing ulcers on the great toe in particular often makes a great deal of sense.




The great toe (or hallux in medical terminology) is the single

most common location for a diabetic or neuropathic wound

to form--accounting for something on the order of 1/4 to 

1/3 of all such neuropathic ulcers.

Birke JA, Sims DS. Plantar sensory threshold in the ulcerative foot.   

Lepr Rev 1986;57:261-7.    This study found 25% of ulcers in leprosy

patients involved the hallux (N=132);  24% in diabetics (N=45)


Ambegoda, A L A M C & R Wijesekera, J & I Panditharathne,

K & Gamage, Rehan & S Mudalige, C & Piyasiri, Ruvini. (2015).

Analysis of Severity and Anatomical Distribution of Diabetic

Foot Ulcers; A Single Unit Experience 1 A L A M.   International

Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies. 2. 1-10. 10.4038/ijms.v2i1.58.

This study (N=45) found 24.4% of diabetic ulcers were in the hallux 

Molines-Barroso RJ, Lázaro-Martínez JL, Beneit-Montesinos

JV, Álvaro-Afonso FJ, García-Morales E, García-Álvarez Y. 

Predictors of Diabetic Foot Reulceration beneath the Hallux.

J Diabetes Res.  2019 Jan 8;2019:9038171.

doi: 10.1155/2019/9038171. eCollection 2019.   

This study states that one-third of all diabetic ulcers are hallux



Ledoux WR, Shofer JB, Cowley MS, Ahroni JH, Cohen V, Boyko EJ.

Diabetic foot ulcer incidence in relation to plantar pressure

magnitude and measurement location J Diabetes Complications.

2013;27(6):621–626. doi:10.1016/j.jdiacomp.2013.07.004 

This study suggests hallux ulcers make up 40.4% of diabetic ulcers





And ulcers in this location are among the most notorious in their tendency to recur.   In one study, 83% of hallux ulcers were seen to return within

31.5 months of the study. 

Peters EJ, Armstrong DG, Lavery LA. Risk factors for recurrent diabetic

foot ulcers: site matters.  Diabetes Care. 2007 Aug;30(8):2077-9.

Epub 2007 May 16. PubMed PMID: 17507693.







Why hallux ulcers recur at so high a frequency has been a matter of


We certainly knew that there is a great deal of pressure and shear

(friction) applied to the great toe in gait, but the heel and the ball of

the foot bear a lot of force in gait, too.

The question is what specific factors are responsible for this increase

in ulceration rate in this location.

A number of possible factors have been suggested.  


However, in 2019, researchers in Spain examined over two dozen

potential factors suggested as a cause of hallux re-ulceration,

including the patient’s age, blood sugar level (Hg A1c), circulation

(Ankle-Brachial Index), body-mass index, duration of diabetes, the

presence of nephropathy and retinopathy, great toe joint range of

motion, ankle range of motion, inversion and eversion ranges of

motion, and a half dozen angles of bone orientation.

In the end, the only variables found to be associated with the time

to hallux ulceration were increased body-mass index and a diminished

range of great toe joint motion. 

Molines-Barroso RJ, Lázaro-Martínez JL, Beneit-Montesinos JV, Álvaro-Afonso FJ, García-Morales E, García-Álvarez Y. 

Predictors of Diabetic Foot Reulceration beneath the Hallux. J Diabetes Res. 2019;2019:9038171. Published 2019 Jan 8.


This effect is demonstrated in one study of hallux ulcers, where 28 patients of 29 patients with ulcers beneath the great toe had a limitation of motion.

Boffeli TJ, Bean JK, Natwick JR. Biomechanical abnormalities and ulcers of the great toe in patients with diabetes. 

J Foot Ankle Surg 2002;41:359-64





Normally we have between 60-65 degrees of motion

about the big toe joint. 


To the right we see a great toe with even more range

of motion than typical.   

However, sometimes people have very poor range of

motion about the big toe joint.  This is known as hallux

limitus (if a mild or moderate limitation of motion exists)

or hallux rigidus (if the limitation is more severe). 






To the left we see the great toe barely bends at all even when we try pushing toe.  This is hallux rigidus.

The joint that is supposed to bend is known as the 1st metatarsophalangeal joint or 1st MTPJ for short.




To the right we see another example of hallux rigidus.

The great toe joint doesn't bend at all at the base of

the toe (1st MTPJ). 

As a result, you can see excessive motion at the next

joint, the joint between the toe bones.  This joint is

called the interphalangeal joint or IPJ.

The result of the hyperextending IPJ is more pressure  

on the bottom of the toe.  This has resulted in early

callus development at the bottom of the toe. 

A callus like this is the first step towards ulcer




Why Does Great Toe Joint Motion Become Limited?



Limitation of motion of the great toe joint commonly originates with a biomechanical abnormality resulting

in elevation of the first metatarsal bone--the bone to

which the great toe attaches to the foot. 

A variety of biomechanical issues can cause this.  A

longer-than-normal first metatarsal is one example. 

An excessively mobile first metatarsal  is another.  

But the most common cause of limited motion in a great toe joint is a foot that excessively pronates or flattens in stance--as seen to the left.

We mentioned above how body weight was also related to ulcer recurrence in this location.   Extra weight not only increase pressure directly, but it also causes the foot to 

pronate more.

When the foot rolls in like this, there is more pressure on that side of the foot and the 1st metatarsal tends to elevate.  

A great toe joint is often normal in appearance and in motion when the patient is not bearing weight, but when it elevates in stance, it makes it more difficult for the great toe to get up and around the first metatarsal in order to bend. 



A limitation in motion about the great toe joint that is seen only in gait, but has no structural limitation of motion (like arthritis or a bony  blockage), is called functional hallux limitus or FHL.  FHL is extremely common, and a major factor in the formation of hallux ulcers.

M. K. Allen, T. J. Cuddeford, W. M. Glasoe et al., “Relationship between static mobility of the first

ray and first ray, midfoot, and hindfoot motion  during gait,” Foot & Ankle International, vol. 25,

no. 6, pp. 391–396, 2004. 

E. Maceira and M. Monteagudo, “Functional hallux rigidus and the Achilles-calcaneus-plantar system,”

Foot and Ankle Clinics, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 669–699,  2014. 

You can see an elevated first metatarsal in the

standing x-ray to the right.  Note how the bone

is elevated, but there are no arthritic changes.   

If a great toe tries to bend, it is blocked by the 

first metatarsal, and cannot bend upwards. 


This can cause extra pressure to built up on the

great toe, creating a callus or an ulcer.

At this early stage, with little to no arthritic

change seen in the joint, a specialized orthotic

can be made to allow the 1st metatarsal to

drop, thereby increasing great toe joint motion. 

And surgeries to shorten, drop or decompress

the great toe joint may be considered in healthy

patients.  These can restore range of motion in

the great toe joint and resolve ulcers under the

great toe.  

Eventually, as the base of the big toe continually

bangs nto the elevated metatarsal, we begin

to see bone changes--enlargements of bone

(known as spurs) that develop on the top of

the joint, as seen to the right. 

This bony build up further blocks the 1st MTPJ

movement, increasing pressure on the bottom

of the big toe, leading to ulceration.

When a bony build up is physically blocking great toe joint motion, this is known as a structural or bony hallux limitus.

Surgeries at this stage involve removing the bony spur, possibly with other procedures.  Removing a bump like this is not overly invasive as a procedure, and can be performed under local anesthetic.  The patient may walk immediately afterward.  However, arthritic changes soon develop in the joint, and this may limit motion even if the spur is removed.


Over time, the spur on top of the joint enlarges, you may see flattening of the joint surfaces and loose fragments of bone in the joint space, something known as a joint mouse (left).  These changes act like a door jam, further blocking movement.



As the edges of the joint degenerate, the joint space

between the great toe and the first metatarsal becomes

narrowed and irregular.  This is because the joint surfaces

are covered with cartilage, something invisible on x-ray. 


As the cartilage wears down, there is less separating the

bones, and they get closer and closer to each other. 


Eventually the bones are close enough to touch. 


This is arthritis.  And the motion about the joint will be

greatly restricted.











In severe cases, there may be complete obliteration

of the joint space.  In severe cases of arthritis like this, there will be little to no motion about the great toe joint. 


This is hallux rigidus.










Ulcers of the big toe are often found directly beneath the big toe, as seen in the three images below.  This location is common when the lack of great toe joint motion causes direct pressure under the great toe. 
























Other times, ulcers are seen more on the side of the big toe (as seen below).  When ulcers are seen a bit off to the side of the great toe, as seen in the photos below, it means friction or shear is part of the cause.  

























Shear or friction that causes an

ulcer to form on the side of the big

toe may arise from a great toe that

is turned on its side, in what is known

as a valgus position.  We see this in

the examples on the left and right. 


Note how the nails of the big toes

are turned on their side.  This shows

the degree of rotation present.

A great toe rolling on its side like this
is common with bunion formation--
an enlarged great toe joint with a
crooked great toe (left and right).  


And it's common in very pronated

feet (where the foot is rolling inwards

and the arch is collapsing, as seen

to the right.






Ulcers forming on the inside edge of the great toe
are common, too, in out-toed feet. 


With an out-toed gait, the great toe may be straight compared to the foot, but the whole foot is pointed away from the centre-line of the body.  And as the body moves forward, weight is transferred off the side of the big toe. 


This creates friction or shear on the side of the big toe--forces that can create an ulcer in that location.  





So a variety of mechanical forces can cause an ulcer to form on the big toe.  Some of the most common causes are a stiff great toe joint, a foot that is too pronated (one that rolls in too much), a bunion deformity with a crooked big toe, and an out-toed gait.

So Why Do Ulcers On The Big Toe Frequently Need Surgical Intervention?


As discussed on the top of this page, ulcers of the great toe joint are the most common site of ulcer formation, and ulcers of the great toe have an extremely high recurrence rate (over 80% within three years). 

The danger is that about a third of ulcers become infected within 12 weeks of formation, and eventually more than half become infected. 

Lavery LA, Fulmer J, Shebetka KA, Regulski M, Vayser D, Fried D, Kashefsky H,

Owings TM, Nadarajah J; Grafix Diabetic Foot Ulcer Study Group. The efficacy and

safety of Grafix(®) for the treatment of chronic diabetic foot ulcers: results of

a multi-centre, controlled, randomised, blinded, clinical trial. Int Wound J.

2014 Oct;11(5):554-60. doi: 10.1111/iwj.12329. Epub 2014 Jul 21. PubMed PMID:



Marston WA, Hanft J, Norwood P, Pollak R; Dermagraft Diabetic Foot Ulcer Study

Group. The efficacy and safety of Dermagraft in improving the healing of chronic

diabetic foot ulcers: results of a prospective randomized trial. Diabetes Care.

2003 Jun;26(6):1701-5. PubMed PMID: 12766097.

Veves A, Falanga V, Armstrong DG, Sabolinski ML; Apligraf Diabetic Foot Ulcer

Study. Graftskin, a human skin equivalent, is effective in the management of

noninfected neuropathic diabetic foot ulcers: a prospective randomized

multicenter clinical trial. Diabetes Care. 2001 Feb;24(2):290-5. PubMed PMID:



Prompers L, Huijberts M, Apelqvist J, et al. Optimal organization of health care in diabetic
foot disease: introduction to the Eurodiale study. Int J Low Extrem Wounds 2007;6:11-7.

Each infection puts the patient at risk for amputation, with the risk becoming greater as the patient ages and the patient's health declines.  And amputations tend to lead to a domino effect of more ulcers and more amputations.

The high recurrence rate, the high tendency for infection, the rising risk of amputation over time mean that surgical intervention to correct the cause of the ulceration is often indicated.


Surgery of the Great Toe Joint


In patients with ulcers, what is commonly indicated is a simple  surgery to resolve

arthritis and increase range of motion of the great toe joint--yet a procedure that

allows for speedy healing and weight bearing.  

Often the procedure indicated in cases of hallux limitus or rigidus is a 1st

metatarsophalangeal joint arthroplasty or Keller procedure.  First described in

1904 by Colonel William Lordan Keller (1874-1959), the Keller arthroplasty involves

removing the base of the great toe joint. 

Keller WL.The surgical treatment of bunions and hallux valgus. New York Medical Journal.
1904; 80:741.  

For a biographical background on Dr. Keller, and the origin of this image, visit   

Below left you can see an example of a patient with significant arthritis of the great toe joint.  To the right you can see a red, transverse line drawn where the bone may be cut.


























When the bone cut is made and the fragment is removed, 

as with the example to the right, we create a space

between the two remaining bone fragments.

To keep the edges of the remaining bones from grinding

together, the soft tissues surrounding the joint are placed

between the bones, acting as a cushion. 

There's no more arthritis blocking motion.  The remaining

bones are separated and cushioned.  And the 

procedure decompresses the joint, also addressing the

limitation of motion caused by functional hallux limitus.










Removing part of the great toe joint may sound like a big procedure, and it certainly needs to be carefully considered, particularly when attempts at conservative, non-surgical offloading methods have failed. 


But this surgery can be done under local anesthetic, even in a specialized office setting.  And the patient may usually walk out of the operatory theater.  

To the left is a patient who had been treated surgically by the author over ten years earlier.  It's difficult to see the scar on the top of the great toe joint.  The toe now bends, and, most importantly, there has been no ulcer in the past ten years since the surgery.


Isn't surgery like this risky for diabetic and neuropathic patients?



There are risks to surgery.  The patient may get an infection.  The patient may not heal well.  Surgery could lead to amputation.  

But this all true of ulcers as well.  A third of ulcers become infected within 12 weeks of forming.  And many ulcers never manage to heal. 

So it could be argued that in many cases it may be safer to perform a one-time surgery when the patient is younger and the circulation and overall health will never be better, than it is to allow ulcerations to recur, half of which may become infected, and a fifth of which may end up, at some point in time, with an amputation. 

The medical literature appears to support this view.  For example, in a 2003 study of ulcers under the great toe, those treated with a Keller arthroplasty were compared to those who received conservative, non-surgical treatment.  Those treated with surgery healed at 24.2 days.  Patients treated with non-surgical care took 67.1 days, 2.8 times longer.  Those treated with surgery had a re-ulceration rate of 4.8% within 6 months of follow up.  Those who were treated non-surgically had a 35% re-ulceration rate in the first 6 months after closure, 7.3 times higher.  Those treated with surgery had an amputation rate of 4.8%.  Those treated with non-surgical care had a 10% amputation rate--twice as high.  Infection rates were similar (40% vs 38.1%, respectively).


Armstrong DG, Lavery LA, Vazquez JR, Short B, Kimbriel HR, Nixon BP, Boulton AJ.  Clinical efficacy

of the first metatarsophalangeal joint arthroplasty as a curative procedure for hallux interphalangeal

joint wounds in patients with diabetes.  Diabetes Care. 2003  Dec;26(12):3284-7. 




In another study (N=14), a Keller arthroplasty provided wound healing in 14-23 days versus an average of 47 days with total contact cast, and the re-ulceration rate was 0% with surgery vs 19% with total contact casting. 


Lin SS, Bono CM, Lee TH. Total contact casting and Keller arthoplasty for diabetic great toe ulceration

under the interphalangeal joint. Foot Ankle Int. 2000 Jul;21(7):588-93. PubMed PMID: 10919626.




An Israeli study of 28 procedures, ulcers treated with a Keller procedure healed in just 3.1 weeks.  Complications of infection and slow wound closure occurred in six procedures (21%).  The rest returned to normal activity by 4 weeks.  At 26 months, 78% had no ulcer recurrence.


Tamir E, Tamir J, Beer Y, Kosashvili Y, Finestone AS. Resection Arthroplasty for Resistant Ulcers

Underlying the Hallux in Insensate Diabetics. Foot Ankle  Int. 2015 Aug;36(8):969-75.

doi: 10.1177/1071100715577952. Epub 2015 Mar 25.  PubMed PMID: 25810459.






Other Great Toe Procedures


In the case to the below, the ulcer on the bottom of the great toe was not caused by a toe that bent poorly at its attachment to the foot. 

Rather, the last toe bone was dislocated and situated above the first toe bone.  This resulted in the first toe bone being pushed down into the ground, creating  a pressure spot (arrow below) that created an ulcer at the bottom of the great toe joint. 

















In this case, the fragment removed was not the base of the great toe, but the portion of bone being pushed into the ground, as marked with the arrow.  Below you can see the bone being pressed into the ground is bone.  And so is the ulcer.



























Ulcers at the tip of the great toe are quite common

as well.  These are usually caused by a contracture of

the great toe, (below left) that causes the tip of the

toe to bear weight (below right). 

In simple cases with no arthritis, a flexor tenotomy

can be considered.  In some cases this would require

no more than a single stitch  

If arthritis is present in the contracted joint, a portion
of bone can be removed as seen in the case above. 


























On somewhat rare occasions, an ulcer may be caused

by an extra bone on the bottom of the great toe. 


This is known as an interphalangeal joint sesamoid,

and it may also cause enough pressure to create an ulcer.  

Surgical correction of this problem involves the removal

of the sesamoid.





Some patients will develop ulcers as a

result of a misaligned great toe, where

it leans in so severely that the bones of

the first and second toes begin to rub



This can be corrected by filing any bony

prominences through a very small (1-2

stitch) incision, or surgically straightening

the great toe, such as through the Keller

procedure described above.  












Sometimes ulcers are created as the great toe sits beneath the 2nd toe.   In the example to the below right, the pressure caused by an overlapping great toe resulted in gangrenous changes.




























These, too, can be corrected surgically to prevent the recurrence of ulcers.

We discuss ways to surgically offload the lesser toes here.

IMG_7043 (1).JPG
IMG_7146 (1).JPG

First metatarsal elevating relative

              to the other metatarsals.

IMG_7382 (1).JPG
2MTH Ulcer xray.jpg
IMG_7222 (1).JPG
IMG_7065 (1).JPG

"If you have spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, everything else seems easy."

                        --Franklin Delano Roosevelt


No motion at the 1st MTPJ or

1st metatarsophalangeal joint

Interphalangeal joint



1st Metatarsal




Foot Rolling


Arch Collapsing

IMG_7043 (1).JPG

1st metatarsophalangeal joint

(1st MTPJ)


Colonel William Lordan Keller .jpg
Autumn dry maple leaf on a white backgro

To return to the top of this page, click on the leaf to the right.

This page written by Dr. S A Schumacher
Podiatric Surgeon
Surrey, British Columbia  Canada

All clinical photographs are owned and provided
by Dr. S A Schumacher.  They may be reproduced
for educational purposes with attribution to: 
Dr. S A Schumacher, Surrey, BC Canada

bottom of page