What Is It?
The smallest four toes of each foot have three bony segments beyond the toe webs (skin between the toes), just as the fingers do. Hammertoe is a deformity in which one or more of the small toes develops a bend at the joint between the first and second segments (the joint just beyond the toe web) so that the toe tip is turned downward, giving it the appearance of a hammer or claw. The second toe is affected most often.
Most hammertoes are caused by the long-term wearing of ill-fitting, tight or high-heeled shoes. Constrictive footwear crowds the toes, putting pressure on the middle toes and causing them to curl downward. Hammertoe also can be caused by a deformity known as a bunion, which is the knobby bump that sometimes develops at the side of the big toe. A bunion causes the big toe to bend toward the other toes of the foot, and the big toe can then overlap and crowd the smaller toes. Occasionally, a hammertoe is inherited or caused by arthritis in the toe joint.
If the toes remain in the hammertoe position for long periods, the tendons on the top of the foot will tighten over time because they are not stretched to their full length. Eventually, the tendons shorten enough that the deformity becomes unmovable, even when shoes are not being worn.
The symptoms of hammertoe include:
- A curling toe
- Pain or discomfort in the toes and ball of the foot or the front of the leg, especially when toes are stretched downward
- Thickening of the skin above or below the affected toe with the formation of corns or calluses
- Difficulty finding shoes that fit well
In its early stages, hammertoe is not obvious. Frequently, hammertoe does not cause any symptoms except for the claw-like toe shape.
Most health care providers can diagnose hammertoe simply by examining your toes and feet. X-rays of the feet are not needed to diagnose hammertoe, but they may be useful to look for signs of some types of arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis) or other disorders that can result in hammertoe. If the deformed toe is very painful, your doctor may recommend that you have a fluid sample withdrawn from the joint with a needle so the fluid can be checked for signs of infection or gout (arthritis from crystal deposits).
Unless treated, hammertoe is permanent.
Most cases of hammertoe can be prevented by wearing shoes that fit properly and give the toes plenty of room. Some recommended guidelines include:
- Avoid shoes with pointed or narrow toes.
- Avoid shoes that are too tight or short.
- Avoid high-heeled shoes, which can force the toes forward.
- If the shoes hurt, don’t wear them.
- Choose shoes with wide or boxy toes.
- Choose shoes that are a half-inch longer than your longest toe.
If you notice the beginning signs of hammertoe, you may be able to prevent tightening of the tendons by wearing toe-friendly shoes, by flattening your toes regularly, and by soaking your feet every day in warm water, then stretching your toes and ankles toward the sole of your foot.
Foot exercises also can help to maintain or restore the flexibility of the tendons. One simple exercise is to place a small towel on the floor and then pick it up using only your toes. You also can grasp at carpet with your toes or curl your toes up and down repeatedly.
Treating hammertoe involves straightening the toe, making tendons in the toes flexible again, and preventing a recurrence. Some simple treatments include:
- Splinting the toe to keep it straight and to stretch the tendons of the foot
- Using over-the-counter pads, cushions or straps to decrease discomfort
- Exercising the toes to relax the foot tendons (a session with a physical therapist may help you get started with foot exercises)
- Wearing shoes that fit properly and allow toes plenty of room to stretch out
In advanced cases in which the toe has become stiff and permanently bent, the toe can be straightened with surgery. One type of surgery involves removing a small section of the toe bone to allow the toe to lie flat. Surgery for hammertoe usually is classified as a cosmetic procedure. Cosmetic foot surgeries sometimes result in complications such as pain or numbness, so it’s better to treat the problem with a shoe that fits properly.
When To Call A Professional
Make an appointment with a health care professional if you experience pain in your toes or feet that lasts longer than several days. If one or more of your toes begins curling, see your doctor or a podiatrist (foot doctor) to discuss early treatment to avoid hammertoe. If you already have hammertoe and find it bothersome, call a health care professional for an evaluation.
If you have diabetes and experience any toe or foot pain or toe problems, including hammertoe or corns, see a physician promptly to avoid potential infection or skin complications.
Hammertoe is a harmless and often painless condition. Although the toe may be curled permanently, hammertoe should cause no long-term problems other than a more difficult time finding shoes that fit. If hammertoe is treated and preventive measures are followed, the condition should not return. Wearing tight or constricting shoes can cause hammertoe to return.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.