Or, “Broken Toes are a Bummer but Present an Excellent Opportunity for Turning Yourself into a Case Study.”
So I’ve been quiet lately, due in large part to two events: the beginning of our farmers’ market season on May 3rd, and breaking my toe eight days ago (less than 72 hours before said market season was to start).
Ten days before the start of the 2013 market season, I herniated my L5 disk and was bedridden for five days. So as far as serious injuries go, a broken toe doesn’t rank too highly on the list. However, it sure is inconvenient. It happened in a moment of carelessness; I stub my toes all the time since I insist on walking around the house barefoot no matter the season. But this time when my left pinkie toe caught on one of my (unoccupied) rubber rain boots, I could tell it was different. My body’s reaction to the pain was quite similar to the reaction I had when I herniated my disk: intense nausea, a cold sweat, and a horrible feeling of wrongness.
My mother has a long history of broken toes–she’s broken nine out of ten, and some of them more than once. I’d hoped to dodge that genetic bullet but it looks like I’m taking after her. She broke her first toe at 31 and I’m not too far off that mark.
It hurt like hell, but it obviously wasn’t a compound fracture so I decided to forego an expensive doctor visit, especially considering the conventional advice would simply be to buddy tape it and wait for it to heal.
Of course, I have more tools at my disposal than just medical tape, and I fully intended to use them!
Perhaps the thing that helped my healing process the most was not icing my toe. I know we’ve all had it drilled into our heads by this point that icing is a good practice for almost any injury, but that’s not always the case. Applying cold to an injury slows local circulation (thereby reducing swelling) and numbs the pain–which can be very helpful in a number of situations. But swelling is the body’s natural response to injury for a reason: in the case of a broken toe, that reaction increases blood flow to the surrounding tissues and helps immobilize the appendage and the broken bone within. Circulation in the extremities is relatively slow as a matter of course and good circulation promotes healing, so the last thing I wanted to do was shut down blood flow to my toe. I started instead with a hot Epsom salt soak, which helped reduce the swelling considerably without reducing circulation.
That night, I applied a liberal coating of my bruise salve (which contains infused oils of elder leaf, yarrow flower and leaf, and comfrey leaf) and buddy taped my broken toe to its hale and hearty neighbor. At no point in the entire process did I have to take any kind of over-the-counter painkiller; as long as I didn’t put weight or pressure on the toe, there was no pain.
The next day, I got started on a more intensive remedy and dug a comfrey (Symphytum officinale) root from the garden. This isn’t the best time of year for digging roots, which are typically harvested in the early spring or fall. But acute injuries aren’t exactly convenient in their timing. I deliberately allowed the comfrey root to break off in the ground so that the plant will be able to regenerate itself; comfrey will usually come back if even a 1-2″ section of root remains. Some of those sections are still buried deep so it’ll take a while, but comfrey is nothing if not determined.
Comfrey’s healing powers are legendary, and one of its traditional names is “knitbone” because it’s so good at mending broken bones. I use comfrey leaf in my bruise salve for a gentler effect, but many of its medicinal compounds are concentrated in the root and in the root’s black skin in particular. Fresh comfrey root should be thoroughly washed before using, but it should not be scraped or peeled.
After I washed the root, I chopped it finely (it gets gooey–comfrey root also contains large quantities of mucilage) and added it to four cups of water in a stainless steel, non-reactive pot. I covered the pot with a lid and set it to simmer for two hours in order to make a very strong decoction as well as to cook the root until it was soft and suitable for poultice-making.
At that point, I strained the root from the liquid and ground it into a paste with a mortar and pestle. You could use a blender to puree it, but I try to avoid electrical appliances for most of my herbal preparations (which is a post for another time). To the paste I added perhaps a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to loosen it up and to help extend its shelf life in the refrigerator. One two-year-old root yielded about five tablespoons of poultice, and I applied a tablespoon at a time to my toe, on top of a fresh layer of bruise salve so that the poultice wouldn’t stick to my toe.
Typically, poultices are most effective when they are applied hot and then reheated and reapplied as soon as they cool. For my comfrey poultice, I applied it hot, dressed it with sterile gauze and medical tape, put a sock over it all, and went immediately to bed. In the mornings, I removed the poultice and gauze, gently wiped the skin clean, and applied more bruise salve before taping my toes together again. If I had to do it again with a major broken bone, like an arm or a leg, I would definitely reheat and reapply the poultice multiple times for maximum effect.
When I first made the poultice, I saved the comfrey root decoction and added it to another hot Epsom salt soak. I only soaked in the decoction that once, as I had a good supply of poultice and no reason to harvest more roots for further decoction. But soaking in the decoction on a regular basis would have also contributed to the healing process.
I literally couldn’t take any time off to heal, so I just kept on moving. I did avoid putting weight on the broken toe for several days and compensated with an awkward hobble. (My chiropractor just loved what that did to my lower back…) But by day four, I was able to walk normally again without pain. I’m certainly hyperaware of that toe and I don’t think I’ll be walking around barefoot again for quite some time to come. But overall it was a minor speed bump, a footnote, if you will.
Yes, that was a terrible pun.
Yesterday marked a week since I broke my toe and I think it’s healing up quite nicely. It’s still too tender to cram into a closed-toe shoe, so I’ve been working in the garden in one sock and sandal and one work boot–très fashionable! It’s impossible to know how the bone itself is healing up in the absence of an x-ray. But since the typical break takes 4-6 weeks to heal you can bet I’ll be extra careful of that toe for a while and continue the salve, poultice, and taping protocol for the next week or so.