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A thorn in the toe: Unearthing the facts about ingrown toenails

Many people will be familiar with that sharp, throbbing pain, usually in the big toe, that seems to appear out of nowhere. The ingrown toenail is a common yet often underestimated foot ailment that can cause significant discomfort and inconvenience. In this blog, we explore this pesky problem and how to prevent or treat it.

What exactly is an ingrown toenail?

Ingrown toenails, known medically as onychocryptosis, occur when the edge of a toenail grows into the surrounding skin, instead of over it. This condition typically affects the big toe, but it can occur on any toe. It's more than just a minor nuisance; it can lead to pain, swelling, redness, and significant infection if left untreated.

The Role of Genetics:

Genetics can play a role in the development of ingrown toenails. If your parents or grandparents had them, you may be more predisposed to the condition. Factors like the shape of your toenails and the way they grow can sometimes be inherited. Toes with a wide nail plate or involuted (curled) shape may be more at risk of becoming ingrown.

Improper Footwear:

The shoes you wear can also contribute to ingrown toenails. Tight, ill-fitting shoes compress the toes, pushing the skin against the nail and increasing the risk of ingrowth. High heels and football boots are notorious for putting pressure on the toes and increasing the likelihood of developing this problem.

Other factors:

A single trauma to the toe or repetitive trauma from activities like running or football may contribute to an ingrown toenail. Obesity, hyperhidrosis (sweating), fungal infection and some medicines have all been linked to the development of onychocryptosis.

The Dangers of DIY Nail Surgery:

One common mistake people make is trying to fix their ingrown toenails at home. Attempting to cut the nail yourself can lead to infections, further complications, and more pain. Trimming down the corner of the nail can leave a ‘nail spike’ that grows into the skin. It's essential to seek professional care if you suspect you have an ingrown toenail.

The Importance of Proper Nail Trimming:

Prevention is key and proper toenail trimming can significantly reduce the risk of ingrown toenails. Cut your toenails following the natural shape of your nail and avoid cutting deeply down the side of the nail. Avoid cutting the nails too short. Both corners of the nail and the white ‘free edge’ of the nail should be visible. Using a nail file helps to smooth the edge of the nail. File away from the toe, corner to centre in long ‘sweeping’ motions.

Treatment Options:

If you do develop an ingrown toenail, several treatment options are available. Non-surgical methods can help in mild cases and surgical treatment may be required for more severe or recurring problems.

Non-surgical: Wearing wide-toed shoes helps to relieve pressure. If the problem is mild, the toe can be taped with sports tape to pull the skin away from the nail, or dental tape applied under the corner to help guide the nail forward without it piercing the skin.

Surgical: A podiatrist can lift and trim the nail to remove the nail spike that is digging into surrounding tissue for immediate pain relief. They can also treat infection if necessary. In more severe cases the nail or a section of nail can be surgically removed, and a chemical applied to prevent regrowth and significantly lower the rate of recurrence.

Recurrence and Prevention:

Ingrown toenails can be stubborn and prone to recurrence. To prevent future problems, consider avoiding tight footwear, practicing good foot hygiene, and maintaining regular toenail care. Additionally, if you've had recurrent ingrown toenails, your podiatrist may recommend nail surgery to permanently remove the ingrown part of the nail to help prevent further issues.


Ingrown toenails might be common, but they're far from mundane. Understanding the cause of these pesky problems can help you prevent and manage them more effectively. Remember, your feet are essential to your overall well-being, so take good care of them and seek professional help if you're dealing with an ingrown toenail. Whether it's due to genetics, improper footwear, or DIY nail surgery, there's always help available, and a long-term cure is possible.

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