If you’re like me and you have more than once used a few choice words after painfully stubbing your toe, you might start to ask: “Why do we have toes?” After all, they break easily, they’re lousy at grabbing things, they’re covered in useless nails that always need clipping, and from a pure aesthetic point of view, well they’re not very beautiful. So are our toes just worthless evolutionary appendages waiting to wreak havoc, or do they have importance for our lives as human beings?
All Kinds and Shapes of Toes
Take a look at the animal kingdom. Yes, even elephants have toes but they’re barely distinguishable from the rest of the trunk-like foot. Dogs and cats come with very small toes compared to the size of their feet. These types of animals who walk on tiny toes are known as digitigrades. Moving on to the primates, we have an animal like the gibbon which has long, floppy feet sporting five very long and supple toes, one of which appears to be a thumb-like opposable finger (useful for grasping tree branches).
What About Human Toes?
Humans fall somewhere in the middle of various types of toe design. We are fitted out with five distinct toes that are quite small, with one toe (the big toe) standing out as larger and stronger than the others. To understand the benefit of our type of toes, we have to think about the foot as a whole, and how we walk and run.
The Initial Impact
If you look at your foot from the back of your heel to the front of your toes, it becomes apparent that the foot becomes less rigid. The human foot can be split into three basic segments:
- Hind foot (ankle and heel).
- Midfoot (arch and ball).
- Forefoot (toes).
In what is regarded as the “standard gait,” the impact of the foot hitting the ground starts from the back and ends up at the front. This is often called “heel-striking” where the extremely hard and rigid hind foot is able to absorb that first impact.
What Happens Next?
As you roll forward, the flat bottom of your foot hits the ground. The muscles and tendons of the hind foot and midfoot act as shock absorbers. They then raise up the heel, moving you forward onto your toes. Your toes then push you off into the next step. To learn about the standard gait cycle in more detail, watch this video.
What Would Happen If We Didn’t Have Our Toes?
Without our human toes, our entire mechanism for walking wouldn’t work; it wouldn’t be possible to tighten the plantar fascia, and our gait would turn into something that looks like a Frankenstein walk. The way our feet are designed requires toes to avoid placing a whole lot of weight and stress on other parts of the foot that aren’t designed to handle them.
(The plantar fascia is the tendon that runs along the bottom of the foot and connects the heel to the toes.)
But, Why Do We Need Five of Them?
Ok, if all we need is something that’s pretty flexible on the front of our feet, why don’t we have just three or four toes or just one giant toe (like a flipper)? The question of why we have five toes is pretty much unanswered by science, but having several separate appendages at the front of the foot might give us slightly better balance.
Would Longer Toes Be an Advantage?
It has been discovered that even a modest increase in toe length requires much more energy in order to run. A study found that sprinters average much longer toe lengths than non-sprinters. Because longer toes help generate more force, they propel the sprinters forward at a faster space. But, because it take more energy to do this, it’s only advantageous for shorter distances, whereas shorter toes are more suited to long-distance running.
How We Use our Toes Makes us Human
After reading this, you might still swear the next time you stub your toe, but you might regard your toes with a bit more affection. If you have done more than just stub your toe (perhaps you have broken it this time?) come see us at Rocky Mountain Foot & Ankle. In fact, we can help you with any kind of foot or ankle problem so make an appointment today.
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