Hammer toe is defined as a deformity in the toe where part of the toe is permanently bent downward resembling a hammer. Two related conditions are mallet toe and claw toe which effect different toe joints in slightly different ways. The key difference is that hammertoes tends to effect the middle joint in the toe (note: not the middle toe, the middle toe joint). The disease is usually associated with the second largest toe but can effect the third or fourth toe as well. Mallet toe effects the uppermost toe joint whereas claw toe is caused by the tow being held in a cramped ?claw-like? position.
People who are born with long bones in their toes are more likely to develop hammer toe. Children who wear shoes they have outgrown may develop this condition. People who wear very narrow shoes or high-heeled shoes are also more likely to develop a hammer toe. Sometimes, pressure from a bunion can cause hammer toe. Rheumatoid arthritis is another a risk factor.
People who have painful hammertoes visit their podiatrist because their affected toe is either rubbing on the end their shoe (signaling a contracted flexor tendon), rubbing on the top of their shoe (signaling a contracted extensor tendon), or rubbing on another toe and causing a painful buildup of thick skin, known as a corn.
The exam may reveal a toe in which the near bone of the toe (proximal phalanx) is angled upward and the middle bone of the toe points in the opposite direction (plantar flexed). Toes may appear crooked or rotated. The involved joint may be painful when moved, or stiff. There may be areas of thickened skin (corns or calluses) on top of or between the toes, a callus may also be observed at the tip of the affected toe beneath the toenail. An attempt to passively correct the deformity will help elucidate the best treatment option as the examiner determines whether the toe is still flexible or not. It is advisable to assess palpable pulses, since their presence is associated with a good prognosis for healing after surgery. X-rays will demonstrate the contractures of the involved joints, as well as possible arthritic changes and bone enlargements (exostoses, spurs). X-rays of the involved foot are usually performed in a weight-bearing position.
Non Surgical Treatment
If you have hammer toe, avoiding tight shoes and high heels may provide relief. Initial (non-surgical) treatment for hammer toe involves wearing shoes with plenty of room in the toe area. Shoes should be at least one-half inch longer than the longest toe. Stretching and strengthening exercises for the toes (such as picking up items with the toes or stretching the toes by hand) are also recommended. Sometimes orthopedists recommend special pads, cushions, or slings to help relieve the pain of hammer toe.
In some cases, usually when the hammertoe has become more rigid and painful, or when an open sore has developed, surgery is needed. Often patients with hammertoe have bunions or other foot deformities corrected at the same time. In selecting the procedure or combination of procedures for your particular case, the foot and ankle surgeon will take into consideration the extent of your deformity, the number of toes involved, your age, your activity level, and other factors. The length of the recovery period will vary, depending on the procedure or procedures performed.
To prevent a hammertoe, never squeeze your toes into shoes that force them to bend unnaturally. Those tendons can tighten up, and leave a permanent, claw-like bend in your toe. Always slip your feet into soft, roomy shoes hammertoe that easily accommodate all of your toes. Stretching your toes can also help keep the tendons in the toes relaxed, and prevent a hammertoe. Use your hands to gently straighten and stretch your toes or try to pick up objects with your toes, grabbing something from the floor, for example. Sitting on a blanket and using your toes to grab the ends with also relax your feet.