A patient came in the other day with a swollen tip of her second toe. She also had a funny looking, thick toenail and really thought that was the cause of her pain and swelling. She related that she had been experiencing throbbing pain, redness and swelling for several months in just the tip of the toe. It had never spread or gotten much worse. She had never experienced drainage or infection symptoms around the toenail. She was unable to wear a closed-toed shoe and was to the point that she wanted her toe amputated. She had been treated with topical anti-fungals and antibiotics without much result. She was sent to FAANT for another opinion after taking two months of oral anti-fungals and having no change in the nail or toe appearance. What a strange presentation....or is it?
"Sausage toe" is a whimsical term used to describe a red, hot swollen toe often seen in psoriatic arthritis. It can also be seen in Reiter's syndrome and other seronegative arthropathies. In English, a non-rheumatoid type arthritis. Sausage toe is inflammation of the distal interphalangeal joints (tip of your toe and adjacent knuckle) that looks like a sausage or lollipop. In psoriatic arthritis, it is often accompanied by nail changes that mimic onychomycosis or a fungus in the nails. The nails can be pitted, yellow, thickened, fragmented, and lifting from the tip of the toe. Psoriatic arthritis can occur without the typical skin changes seen in psoriasis, but most patients have some skin lesions.
Sausage toes should be treated aggressively to decrease the inflammation and joint destruction. Long term inflammation can lead to erosive changes and permanent joint pain and stiffness. Joint ankylosis (complete fusion of the joint) can occur in severe cases. Basic treatment starts with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), exercise, physical therapy and education. The patient should be taught the "move it or lose it" principal of arthritis management. Exercise and mobilization of the joints, but not overuse and abuse, should be reinforced. Some patients need more aggressive treatment, and this should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan by a rheumatologist.
Sausage toes should not be ignored. They can be caused by many factors such as trauma, infection, osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), and many different rheumatologic disorders as discussed. If you experience a painful, red, swollen toe that just seems to persist; seek the opinion of your podiatrist. Treated early, sausage toe can just be part of a whimsical story instead of a long term disability.