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4 Exercises to Combat Big Toe Arthritis (Hallux Rigidus)

a man in a white shirt and blue and pink suspenders
By Babafemi Adebajo
Davor Štefanović - Editor for Upstep
Edited by Davor Štefanović

Published May 28, 2023.

Focus on a man's foot performing toe curl exercise for hallux rigidus

Living with hallux rigidus, more commonly known as big toe arthritis, can be challenging. This common condition targets the joint at the base of your big toe, causing discomfort, stiffness, and reduced mobility. As a degenerative joint disease, it stems from the wear and tear of the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint cartilage, which can result in bone-on-bone friction and inflammation. It's often seen in women, middle-aged or older people, and those with a family history of the condition.

But fear not—hallux rigidus, while painful and debilitating, is treatable. Rest, physical therapy, and custom orthotics are some conservative measures for managing this condition. In addition, regular exercise can be incredibly beneficial in reducing further joint damage. Here are four exercises that can help you regain strength and mobility in your big toe.

4 Exercises for Big Toe Arthritis

  • Toe Splay
  • Toe Pulls
  • Hallux Flexion And Extension
  • Towel Curls

1. Improve Flexibility with Toe Splay

Toe splay is an easy yet effective exercise to improve flexibility and strength in your toes, including the big toe affected by hallux rigidus. Stretching the muscles and ligaments in your foot can reduce stiffness and pain in the joint, enhance your balance and foot stability, and lessen the risk of future injury.

How to do it: Sit on a chair or the edge of a bed with your feet flat on the ground and your back straight. Then, spread your toes apart as far as you can comfortably manage, hold the position for about five seconds, then relax. Repeat this exercise several times, gradually increasing the duration and frequency as your foot becomes more flexible. You can add a challenge by placing a towel or small ball between your toes and squeezing it gently.

Did You Know?

Hallux rigidus may be genetic, or it can develop from repetitive stress, joint trauma, structural factors, and inflammatory foot conditions. If you're experiencing pain, stiffness, swelling, and tenderness around the MTP joint, these could be symptoms of hallux rigidus. In severe cases, the joint may become deformed.

» Find out if walking is good for foot arthritis

2. Strengthen Muscles with Toe Pulls

Also known as towel pulls, this exercise can improve the strength and flexibility of your toes. It stretches the muscles and tendons in your foot, reducing stiffness and enhancing mobility in the affected joint. Plus, it can improve your foot's overall stability to help prevent further injury.

How to do it: Place a towel or small cloth under your foot while sitting with your feet flat on the ground. Use your toes to pull the towel towards you, curling your toes as you do. Hold for a few seconds, then release and repeat. For added resistance, you can place a weight or object on top of the towel.

» Learn about the possible causes of midfoot pain

3. Enhance Range of Motion with Hallux Flexion and Extension

The hallux flexion and extension exercise can boost the flexibility and range of motion of the affected big toe. It stretches the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your foot, reducing joint stiffness and pain while enhancing foot strength and stability.

How to do it: Bend the big toe towards or away from the sole, then stretch it into both flexion and extension using a hand or an exercise band. While the normal range of motion for big toe extension is approximately 70 degrees, and for flexion, it's approximately 45 degrees, try to reach these ranges of motion as your comfort allows. Hold each position for a few seconds before releasing. Remember to perform this exercise gently to prevent exacerbating the condition.

» Spend a lot of time on your feet? Check out the best insoles for walking all day

4. Boost Balance and Stability with Towel Curls

Also known as scrunches, towel curls are designed to improve the strength and flexibility of your big toe. They stretch and strengthen your foot's muscles and tendons and improve your balance and foot stability.

How to do it: Place a small towel under your toes and use your toes to grip the towel, scrunching it towards you and then pushing it away. Hold for a few seconds, then release. For an added challenge, place an object on the towel to increase the scrunching effort.


Always start any new exercise regimen slowly and gently, and remember to listen to your body. If any exercise causes pain, stop and consult with a healthcare professional.

Marching Towards a Pain-Free Future

Managing hallux rigidus isn't just about managing pain—it's about regaining your foot's strength and flexibility. Regular exercise, including toe splay, toe pulls, hallux flexion and extension, and towel curls, can help reduce joint pain and stiffness and improve overall foot health.

But why stop there? Augment your progress with Upstep's custom insoles designed specifically for hallux rigidus. The Upstep Normal Everyday Activity insoles provide targeted cushioning and support to your affected joint, reducing pressure and discomfort and allowing you to enjoy your daily activities with less pain.

Normal Everyday Activity Orthotics

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