Hammertoes: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Although they may be present at birth, hammertoes typically develop over time. They are marked by an abnormal bend at the center joint of the toe. Common causes include acute trauma and wearing certain types of shoes. Most patients experience relief with conservative treatment options. However, extreme cases may require surgery.

What Are Hammertoes?

Hammertoe is a deformity where, instead of pointing forward, your toe bends downward. This bend occurs in the middle joint. Also known as mallet toe, the condition most often affects the second, third, and fourth toes.

Hammertoe illustration

Hammertoe Symptoms

Hammertoes may cause pain, particularly when moving the affected joint. You may also experience corns or calluses due to the raised toe joint repeatedly rubbing against your shoe.

What Causes Hammertoes?

The most common cause of hammertoe is wearing shoes with a tight toe box or a high heel. This forces the toes into a curled position that may become permanent over time. You may also develop a mallet toe after acute injury, such as jamming, stubbing, or breaking the toe. Finally, you may develop an imbalance in the ligaments, muscles, or tendons that support the toe and keep it straight. This is more common in patients who have certain chronic conditions, like diabetes and arthritis.

Hammertoe Risk Factors

The greatest risk factors for developing a hammertoe are:
  • Age
  • Being female
  • Having a second toe that's longer than your first toe
  • Genetics or family history of the condition
  • Having diabetes or arthritis
Hammertoe photo

Can You Prevent Hammertoes?

Yes, you can prevent hammertoes – and many other common foot problems – simply by wearing comfortable shoes that fit well. Follow these tips:

  • Avoid pointy shoes; a wide toe box leaves plenty of room for your toes
  • Low heels distribute weight evenly, which is good for both your feet and your back
  • Adjustable shoes, i.e. ones with laces or straps, help you get the perfect fit
  • Shop for shoes at the end of the day, when your feet are larger
  • Always try on shoes before buying them to ensure you get the right size – proper fit leaves 1/2 inch between your longest toe and the end of the shoe

And remember, shoes should feel comfortable immediately. Ignore that voice from your childhood telling you you’ll break them in. When you try on new shoes, walk around in them for at least a few minutes while you shop. This gives you a much better idea of fit and comfort.

Hammertoe Diagnosis and Treatment

Your podiatrist diagnoses hammertoe with a simple examination of your foot. He or she may also order x-rays, though, to determine whether an issue with your bones or joints caused your condition.

For less severe cases, treatment typically begins with a change in footwear. Your doctor may also recommend orthotics or pads to help relieve pressure on the affected toe. If the joint retains some level of flexibility, your podiatrist may suggest exercises to help strengthen and stretch the toe. Typically, these involve picking up small or lightweight objects, such as marbles and towels, using your toes.

Surgical treatment for hammertoes typically involves releasing the tendon that’s causing your toe to remain bent. Straightening the toe may also require removing a piece of bone.

Preparing for Your Appointment

Your podiatrist begins by taking a complete medical history, so prepare a list of:
  • Symptoms, including when they began and whether you ever experience relief them or anything makes them worse
  • Recent changes that may have played a role, such as new job, exercise routine, etc.
  • Medications you take, including supplements and vitamins
Your podiatrist begins by taking a complete medical history, so prepare a list of:
  • What likely caused your condition
  • Do you need further tests
  • Is the condition temporary or chronic
  • What treatment course is recommended
  • Are there alternative treatments
  • Do you need surgery and why
If you suffer from hammertoe or other foot ailment, schedule an appointment with Phoenician Foot & Ankle Specialists today.
Hammertoe and corn illustration top and side views
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