Let’s face it—not many of us have toes worth bragging about. Even at their best, toes are probably our least attractive appendages. However, if your toes are particularly misshapen and ugly, you might want to consider having an experienced podiatrist take a look. Sometimes, toe deformities can lead to pain and mobility issues that could have been avoided with early treatment. One such toe deformity is what’s known as a hammertoe. We explain what this common condition is and how our team of foot specialists can straighten out the problem.
Is Your Toe a Hammer, Claw, or Mallet?
Primarily affecting one or more of the four smaller toes on each foot, the deformity can take a variety of shapes and might go by different names, although the condition, in general, is usually just called hammertoe. You might have any of the following:
- Hammertoe. An abnormal bend in the middle joint of the toe usually results in a downward curl that resembles a hammer. This deformity is most common in the second toe.
- Mallet toe. If the bend occurs in the joint closest to the tip of the toe, it might be referred to as mallet toe due to the shorter head of a mallet compared to a hammer. It is also most likely to occur in the second toe.
- Claw toes. When all four small toes bend upward at the lowest joint and downward at the next joint, you have what’s called claw toes because your toes curl to look like an animal’s claw.
These bends in your toes might be very slight at first—in fact, you might not even notice anything unusual until you begin to suffer additional symptoms. However, as soon as you see changes in your toes, you should see a podiatrist before the condition becomes a serious problem.
What Causes Hammertoe?
It’s not always possible to determine a cause for every person’s hammertoes, but the condition does tend to run in families and is more common in women than in men, which tells us a few things:
- It’s genetic. Toes bend into unnatural positions because of weak muscles, which is something that can be inherited. If your mom has toe deformities, you are more likely to develop them as well.
- It can be worsened by tight shoes. If you often wear shoes with tight toe boxes—such as high heels or narrow flats—the pressure on your toes could cause a deformity. Because these types of shoes are typically worn by women, the condition is more common for them. However, men who squeeze into wingtips or other tight shoes could experience the same result.
- Bunions can make it worse. A bunion that forces your big toe to bend in towards the second toe could also cause the second toe into an unnatural curl, creating a hammer or mallet toe.
- It is more likely in people with other health conditions. If you have suffered a stroke, have diabetes, or suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, you are also more likely to have weakened muscles, including the muscles in the feet and toes.
Other than wearing low-heeled shoes with plenty of room in the toe box, there is not much you can do to prevent hammertoe altogether. However, the sooner you see a podiatrist about a concerning bend in a toe, the more options they will have to treat the condition.
Treatment Options to Correct Hammertoe
Early in the process of developing hammertoe, the toes will still be flexible. This means they can be straightened back out. The longer the toe is in a bent position, however, the harder it will be to fix. This is because the muscles and tendons in the toes begin to shorten, preventing the toe from being stretched back to a normal position. A rigid hammertoe can only be corrected with surgery. Before that happens, your podiatrist may try the following interventions:
- New shoes. The first step in fixing hammertoes is to make sure your toes have plenty of room in your shoes. Finding a shoe with a wide toe box that fits your foot well is important so that further treatments will be effective.
- Stretches. Our hammertoe specialists will recommend exercises and stretches to help the toe muscles regain strength and flexibility so that the toes can straighten out again—provided they are in the right shoes!
- Splinting or taping. In combination with stretching and strengthening, we might also tape or splint the toe in a straight position until it can remain straight on its own. Padding might also be necessary to prevent blisters as the toe straightens out.
- Orthotics. In addition to roomier shoes, we might suggest a custom shoe insert to ensure that your footbed is balanced and cushioned, which can help align the toes.
- Surgery. If your hammer, mallet, or claw toes are rigid and causing you pain and mobility problems, you might have no other choice than to have surgery to correct them. In some cases, tendons can be rerouted to move the joint into a straight position. Other times, however, the joint will have to be resected and the bones fused in order to freeze the toe in a straight position. While not ideal, it does relieve pain and will allow you to wear shoes comfortably again.
Many people don’t seek the help of a podiatrist until they are in pain—whether from the corns and callouses formed where the toes rub against their shoes or from the stiff, crooked toe itself. However, the sooner you get in to see us, the more likely it is that we can fix your hammertoe with relatively conservative measures.
Call Omaha Foot & Ankle Specialists for Help
Since 1991, our premier podiatry practice has helped patients find a solution to foot and heel pain caused by toe deformities such as hammertoe. Our highly skilled podiatrists, Dr. Michael Cullen and Dr. Nathan Penney, provide compassionate and comprehensive care for all manner of foot and ankle issues, from fungal toenails to hammertoes and more. Contact our office or call 402-333-8856 as soon as you notice one of your toes curling under. The sooner we get started caring for your feet, the longer you can avoid the necessity for extreme treatments.