Hammer toes is a contracture (bending) of one or both joints of the second, third, fourth, or fifth (little) toes. This abnormal bending can put pressure on the toe when wearing shoes, causing problems to develop. Hammertoes usually start out as mild deformities and get progressively worse over time. In the earlier stages, hammer toes are flexible and the symptoms can often be managed with noninvasive measures. But if left untreated, hammer toes can become more rigid and will not respond to non-surgical treatment. Because of the progressive nature of hammertoes, they should receive early attention. Hammertoes never get better without some kind of intervention.
Poorly fitting shoes and muscle imbalances are the most common causes of hammertoe. When shoes are too narrow or do not accommodate the shape and size of your feet, they often contort the position of your toes. Choosing a shoe that fits is very important when it comes to avoiding foot problems like bunions or hammertoe. Having your toes bent for an extended period of time in a shoe that is too narrow or small forces your toes to adapt to the cramped space. With time, the muscles in your feet become accustomed to holding the flexed position of your toes, making it harder, or even impossible to straighten them.
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 toe stays bent, 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.
Some questions your doctor may ask of you include, when did you first begin having foot problems? How much pain are your feet or toes causing you? Where is the pain located? What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms? What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms? What kind of shoes do you normally wear? Your doctor can diagnose hammertoe or mallet toe by examining your foot. Your doctor may also order X-rays to further evaluate the bones and joints of your feet and toes.
Non Surgical Treatment
Many people start by treating the problem themselves when they have a painful corn or callus. They try to remove the corn by cutting it off or by applying strong acids, and they try to cushion the toe by applying cushioned pads. Because these treatments can be difficult to perform by oneself (and should never be done by oneself when the patient is diabetic or circulation is poor), and because these treatments only treat the symptom, not the structural deformity that causes their symptom, these treatments can often provide only limited success, and often any success is for only short periods of time. Changes in shoe choices and various types of paddings and other appliances may help, too. For longer-lasting help, we must examine the cause of the deformity. The reason for knowing the cause is that the type of treatment will vary, depending upon the cause of the complaint. Orthotics help control the causes of certain types of contracted toes, (those caused by flexor stabilization, for example), but not other types.
Your podiatrist may recommend a surgical procedure if your hammertoes are not helped by the conservative care methods listed above. Surgery for hammertoes is performed to help straighten your crooked toe. Your surgery will be performed in your podiatrist?s office or at a hospital, depending on the severity of your hammertoe. A metal pin is sometimes used to help your affected toe maintain its straight position during your recovery.
As you get older, feet get bigger. Get your feet measured every time you buy shoes. Don't go by shoe sizes. Shoe sizes vary among manufacturers; a shoe is the right size only when it fits comfortably. The ball of your foot should fit into the widest part of the shoe. A shoe should be sturdy such that it only bends in the ball of the foot, exactly where your big toes bend. Any shoe that can be bent anywhere along the sole or twisted side to side is generally too flimsy.
Hammer, mallet, and claw toes have distinctive differences that can assist you in determining what kind of toe problem you are dealing with. All three conditions deal with toes that are curved into abnormal positions, which possibly look strange and may cause pain. Typically, the big toe is not affected by these problems. A Hammer Toe tends to bend downward at the center of a toe joint. It generally affects your second toe. The affliction causes the center of your toe to rise and is often accompanied with a bony lump.
Hereditary and shoe gear are probably the most likely reasons to develop a hammer toe. Tight pointy shoes may cause a hammer toes. High heels also can cause hammer toes. A deformed toe often develops over time, and certain types of feet may be predisposed. Some patients may develop a hammer toe or cross over toe (of the 2nd toe) due to a bunion of the big toe.
Common reasons patients seek treatment for toe problems are toe pain on the knuckle. Thick toe calluses. Interference with walking/activities. Difficulty fitting shoes. Worsening toe deformity. Pain at the ball of the foot. Unsightly appearance. Toe deformities (contractures) come in varying degrees of severity, from slight to severe. The can be present in conjunction with a bunion, and develop onto a severe disfiguring foot deformity. Advanced cases, the toe can dislocate on top of the foot. Depending on your overall health, symptoms and severity of the hammer toe, the condition may be treated conservatively and/or with surgery.
Hammertoes are progressive, they don?t go away by themselves and usually they will get worse over time. However, not all cases are alike, some hammertoes progress more rapidly than others. Once your foot and ankle surgeon has evaluated your hammertoes, a treatment plan can be developed that is suited to your needs.
Non Surgical Treatment
Your podiatrist may recommend one or more of these treatments to manage your hammer toes. Wear shoes with roomy toe boxes which don?t force your toes together. Exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles in the toes. Over the counter toe straps, cushions, and corn pads. Custom orthotic inserts. Toe caps or toe slings. In severe cases, surgery to release the muscles in the affected toes.
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.