We studied six fresh frozen cadaver feet to define the three-dimensional motion of the hallux proximal phalanx in relation to the first metatarsal and to describe the contact features of the first metatarsophalangeal joint. Six tendons to the hallux were loaded to simulate dynamic loading of the hallux. A magnetic tracking system was used to monitor the three-dimensional movement of the proximal phalanx while the toe position was changed from a neutral position to full extension by adjusting the tendon loads. The average surface area was 0.38 +/- 0.08 cm2 in the neutral position; it decreased with toe extension and was the lowest (0.04 +/- 0.03 cm2) at the full extension position. Contact distribution of the proximal phalanx did not change substantially throughout the arc of motion. However, for the metatarsal articular surface, the contact distribution shifted dorsally with increasing degrees of extension. These data are consistent with the observation that chondral erosions associated with hallux rigidus and degenerative arthritis initially affect the dorsal articular surface of the metatarsal, and implant arthroplasty often fails from component loading dorsally. The current technique of determining joint contact characteristics is applicable not only for the first metatarsophalangeal joint but also other joints that have not been studied because of shortcomings with more conventional methods.