Misconceptions about ingrown toenails

Mar 1, 2021

Many of us have experienced the awful pain of having an ingrown toenail to at least some degree. It may not be swollen and infected but even minor ones can be problematic to our daily routines. If it is seriously infected and incredibly painful it may even prevent someone from wearing their normal footwear for work or school.

There are a few misconceptions about how this problem starts and how it is treated.

The cause of an ingrown toenail is simple: pressure or force is applied to the flesh around the toe, driving the flesh into the stationary nail.  Other factors allow minimal pressure or force to create the ingrown toenail such as cutting/ripping nails too short and exposing an edge or having curved nails that expose the flesh to more repetitive pressure. 

With these issues, simple reshaping of the nail or removing some of the width of the nail is all that is required. However, sometimes there are external factors causing the ingrown toenail, the most common being footwear. If footwear is too narrow or small, the pressure of the shoe pushes the flesh into the nail. Foot function is another issue that can often be overlooked. Flat feet can place pressure on the flesh around the nail, driving it sideways when pushing off with the big toe. Swimmers often have issues due to their skin softening after being in the water for too long. Softer skin allows the nail to penetrate easier, creating an ingrown toenail.

These issues all follow a similar pathway to forming a painful ingrown toenail, depending on when intervention is provided. The first thing that happens is that the nail pierces the skin or flesh to some degree. This alone is uncomfortable and is usually the best time to seek help from a podiatrist. After this, the area swells and tissue expands, pushing the piercing nail in further and increasing the severity of the wound. Often, natural bacteria from our body and feet can enter the wound, causing an infection.

Simply treating the ingrown toenail with an antibiotic is ineffective as it does not address the cause of the problem and only prolongs it. Seeking a podiatrist’s advice is the best course of action in this situation. Most people do not have the tools to be able to perform self-treatment and often make the situation worse if they attempt to treat it on their own.