The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
Your toes are possibly the most underappreciated, yet hard-working parts of your body. Though you may give little thought to them until you stub one stumbling out of bed in the night, these facts about your big toe might surprise you.
1. THE BIG TOE CARRIES THE GREATEST LOAD.
Each time you take a step, your foot rolls forward, shifting your body weight onto the ball of the foot as you prepare to push off into your next step. For most people, this means your big toe bears the load of your weight as you push off. Considering how many steps you take in a day, it’s no wonder people often experience pain in this toe.
2. TOE PROSTHETICS DATE BACK TO THE EGYPTIANS.
Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons
Humans have been figuring out ways to work around faulty toes for centuries. Researchers at Manchester University's KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology found a wood and leather prosthetic of a big toe on the mummified foot of a 50- to 60-year-old woman who had undergone a toe amputation. Dating to the first millennium BCE, it's known as "the Cairo Toe."
3. YOUR BIG TOE HAS ONLY TWO BONES.
Despite being the biggest toe on the foot, the big toe only consists of two phalanges (or toe bones), the distal and proximal. Your other toes have three bones, but most of your big toe is made up of flesh and muscle.
4. YOUR BIG TOE AND GENITALS ARE NEIGHBORS … IN YOUR BRAIN.
The somatosensory cortex of your brain receives sensory information from all over the body. The part of the cortex that receives input from your feet happens to adjacent to the area that receives information from your genitals.
5. THIS PROXIMITY MIGHT EXPLAIN FOOT FETISHES.
Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego theorizes that foot fetishes could possibly result from a cross-wiring in the brain between the foot and the genital sensory centers.
6. GOUT OFTEN BEGINS IN THE BIG TOE.
Henry VIII of England as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. King Henry was reputed to have suffered from gout. Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
The disease, a form of arthritis where sharp uric acid crystals build up in the body, frequently appears first as pain and swelling in the big toes, though researchers aren’t entirely sure why this is. Though long known as the "disease of kings" because it afflicted those with access to rich food and drink, gout is increasingly common among us, er, commoners.
7. THERE'S A REASON STUBBING YOUR TOE HURTS SO &!@$# MUCH.
Toes are loaded with numerous nerve-ending receptors called nociceptors that are highly sensitive to actual and potential tissue damage. “When you stub your toe, you’re massively stimulating a bunch of these nerve fibers at the same time. Those signals integrate in your spinal cord, which in turn relays that information to your brain. “It’s just a really big input,” Allan Basbaum, chair of UCSF’s Department of Anatomy, told WIRED. “The brain reads that, and it hurts like hell.”
8. THE BIG TOE SEPARATES HUMANS FROM APES.
Recently scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa determined that the base of the big toe, known as the hallux, is what makes it possible for humans to walk and run upright. They concluded that in other living apes, “the big toe is more thumb-like in facilitating grasping capabilities,” such as tree-climbing behaviors. In other words, our big toes demonstrate that humans are uniquely adapted to standing, walking, and running upright on two legs.
9. SURGEONS CAN MAKE THUMBS OUT OF BIG TOES …
It’s much easier to live without a big toe than it is a thumb. That's why surgeons have begun to master a procedure called a toe-to-thumb transfer in which they replace injured or severed thumbs with big toes. While it sounds gruesome, it’s a life-changing operation that can significantly improve people’s quality of life, and ability to grip things again. They sometimes use other toes as well (warning: graphic images).
10. … AND LOSING YOUR BIG TOE WON'T STOP YOU FROM GETTING AROUND.
While your gait may become uneven, losing a big toe—or even two—won’t prevent you from running, walking, or dancing. It will take some getting used to, but your feet are remarkably adaptable even without big toes.