A hammertoe, or hammer toe, is a deformity of the foot that can affect any of the three toes in the center of the foot. Over time, hammer toes can produce a number of uncomfortable symptoms that typically require treatment.
What is a hammer toe?
A hammer toe is a toe that is bent into a claw-like position. Most often, hammer toe develops with the second toe, but it is also possible for the third or fourth toe to become bent in this way.
Hammer Toe Stages of Development
A progressive condition, a hammer toe develops gradually over time. While the amount of time it takes for the problem to arise may vary, a hammer toe usually develops in stages:
- Pressure causes the toe to bend inward at the middle joint.
- Over time, the pressure causes the ligaments that hold the muscles of the toe to the phalanges bone of the toe and the tendons that connect the muscles to change in shape.
- As the ligaments and muscles change, the toe begins to curl. At this stage, you can typically still bend and straighten your toe with effort.
- Further shortening and tightening of the tendons and ligaments make the hammer toe more noticeable. It no longer becomes possible to bend or straighten the toe. Eventually, you may not even be able to move the joint with your fingers.
Causes of Hammer Toes
Most often, hammer toes are caused by wearing shoes that fit too tightly. Because women are more likely to wear high heels that exert pressure on the feet and shoes with narrow, pointy toe boxes, the problem is more common among ladies than men.
Accidents that cause the toe to be jammed or stubbed can cause lingering injuries that make a person more likely to develop a hammer toe. The condition can also be caused by muscle imbalances that are genetic or that develop due to a medical problem.
Individuals whose second toes are naturally longer than their big toes are more vulnerable to pressure from shoes and more at risk for hammer toes. Arthritis and diabetes can also put a person more at risk for the condition.
Usually, you can spot a hammer toe just by looking at it, but the condition can cause other symptoms. Many people with hammer toes experience pain and inflammation in the affected toe as the condition worsens. You may also develop corns and calluses frequently due to the misalignment of your toes.
For a hammer toe in the early stages, it's often possible to address the condition simply by wearing more comfortable shoes. Once the toe becomes more bent, other interventions are usually needed. Some treatments for hammer toe include:
- Toe straightener pads that help to reposition the toe
- Pads to protect the hammer toe
- Exercises like stretching the foot and picking up objects with your toes
- Cold packs and over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin may be used to ease pain and swelling
- Surgery on the tendons in the toe that allow it to lie flat again
- Surgical removal of a portion of the phalanges bone in the toe