One of the more common problems that causes patients to come see me is for the treatment of ingrown toenails. They are painful, persistent, and can really make life miserable. For some reason, I see a lot of fear on my patients when it comes to the treatment of this problem. I would like to explain what causes ingrown toenails, and what the preferred treatment is for most of my patients.
Ingrown toenails can affect people of all ages. I have seen infants with ingrown toenails, elderly patients, and everyone in between. What causes them to occur? Sometimes it is just the inherited shape of the toenail that predisposes people to develop ingrown toenails. Other times, it can be caused by wearing shoes that are too tight, or an injury to the toe that drives the nail into the surrounding skin. Fungal toenails, because they are often thicker, can also be a factor. Finally, if toenails are cut too short, especially long the sides of the toenail, they can become ingrown as they start to grow back out. Once the problem starts, the surrounding skin will often become infected and inflamed, As it does so, it will cause the entire area around the toenail to be painful.
Treatments at home can and probably should be tried first in mild cases. This includes putting a little bit of cotton under the nail, foot soaks, and avoiding wearing tight shoes. However, if you don’t see results after a week or so, it’s time to let your podiatrist take over. The treatments he can offer range from controlling the infection, to permanently correcting the problem so it does not happen again.
As mentioned above, the toe often becomes infected when the toenail is ingrown. The right antibiotic can treat the infection and greatly reduce the pain. But if that is all that’s done, your relief may be short-lived. Antibiotics do nothing to treat the underlying cause of the problem, namely, the toenail digging into the toe. Under local anesthesia (yes, that does mean a shot!), a portion of the toenail can be removed. Once this is done, the pain is dramatically reduced in most cases, and it also helps to clear the infection. I have found that when just a portion of the nail is removed (as little as 1/8”), the toe heals up within a week or so following the procedure. The one problem with this method is that while the pain is gone, the part of the toenail that was removed will grow back, and often will grow back ingrown.
So what do I do? I have found that for most of my patients, the best alternative is to remove the ingrown portion of the toenail permanently. Not the entire toenail, just the tiny portion along the side that is causing all the problems. Essentially, the same procedure is done as was described above, but I also use a medication to kill the root of the portion of the toenail that was removed. When done correctly, this will prevent the portion of the nail removed from growing back, thus solving the problem for good.
One of the first questions that people ask me is “how much does it hurt to have my ingrown toenail fixed?” Since I believe that it’s best to be straight with patients, I will admit that when the toe is made numb during the injection, there is discomfort. However, that does not last very long, and the rest of the procedure is painless. Afterwards, the biggest surprise most have is how little pain there is once the numbness wears off. Certainly, there is some tenderness, but by far the vast majority of patients tell me when they come back to see me one week later for their follow up appointment that they are happy, they feel much better, and they wish they had taken care of the problem sooner.
Once the toe is healed up completely, the toenail will be a little narrower. Other than the patient herself though, very few will be able to tell that anything had ever been done.
So, my advice is that if you have trouble with a painful ingrown toenail, decide to get it fixed and fixed for good. You’ll be glad you did!