A hammertoe, or hammer toe, is a type of foot deformity caused by an imbalance of a muscle in the toe. Although it can affect any toe, including the big toe, it most often affects the second or third toe. When it happens, it causes the toe joint—specifically the middle joint—to bend down so it develops a misshapen, bent appearance that looks somewhat like a hammer. Often, there is a callus on top of the affected joint, since that part of the toe rubs against the inside of the shoe.
There are many reasons why this foot problem can occur: first, some people are born with a hammertoe. It can also be caused by arthritis. People with diabetes are at risk of complications due to a hammertoe because if the toe has an ulceration, it can become infected. Other times, it is caused by pressure put on the toe from a bunion. When tendons and ligaments become tight, a hammertoe can develop too.
Many times, a hammertoe is caused—or symptoms are made worse—by wearing ill-fitting shoes, such as shoes that have a toe box that is too tight, poor arch support, or high heels. This can easily happen when you wear a shoe size that is too small or high heels that squeeze the toes unnaturally, causing a hammertoe deformity to develop. Likewise, bunions can often be avoided by wearing the right shoes.
In many cases, a hammertoe can be corrected and straightened back into a normal position by wearing the right shoes. However, if this foot problem is not properly addressed, it can become worse and require surgery. Therefore, making an appointment with a podiatrist to have your condition diagnosed is good common sense.
Foot Health and Caring for Hammertoe
Here are nonmedical home treatments you can use to correct a hammertoe and reduce any associated foot pain symptoms:
- Foot Exercises: Foot exercises can strengthen the toe muscles and help reduce imbalance while relaxing the tendons and keeping the toe flexible. One exercise that can be helpful is the towel curl, which involves grabbing a towel with the toes. Gently stretching the bent hammertoe each day can also be beneficial.
- Pads and Toe Splints: Pads can be purchased over the counter. They help reduce friction and pain caused by the hammertoe rubbing against the top of the shoe and make it less likely that you will develop a callus. Toe splints are also readily available and can be used to hold the toe in its proper, straightened position.
- Proper Shoes: If you have a hammertoe, or suspect you do, one of the best first steps you can take is to stop wearing high-heeled shoes or pointy-toed shoes. You should also do this if you believe you have a bunion. A bunion is a deformity that causes the big toe to press into the second toe and form a bony bump at the side of the foot. Bunions can also be made worse by wearing the wrong shoes.
- Taping the Toe: Another nonsurgical treatment that can be done at home involves taping the hammertoe in order to move the bent toe back into a normal position and relieve pain.
How a Doctor Can Help
Custom Orthotics: A podiatrist can develop a custom shoe insert (orthotic) to help correct the problem that led to the hammertoe. He or she may choose arch supports, wedges, or heel orthotics.
Hammertoe Surgery: If home treatments and nonsurgical options have failed to correct the hammertoe and it is a severe case, or if the deformity is causing other problems, a doctor may recommend surgery. One surgical treatment involves removing the affected bone as well as any soft tissue that is problematic in order to realign the toes. Other hammertoe surgery options include releasing a tendon that is too short or transferring a tendon to correct the deformity.
Keeping You in Motion at Lakeshore Bone & Joint Institute
Our fellowship-trained foot and ankle surgeon, Martin H. S. Weisman, M.D., and our specialty-trained podiatrists, Rachel L. Stern, D.P.M., Brian T. Damitz, D.P.M., Aaron K. Ruter, D.P.M., and Hassan Usmani, D.P.M., can diagnose and treat your hammertoe. Our podiatrists also provide any follow-up care you may need to maintain your foot health. While it may be possible to treat your condition with nonsurgical treatment, if surgery is required, our doctors can expertly perform the appropriate procedure.
To schedule an appointment with one of our experienced specialists, please call (219) 921-1444 or request an appointment online.