What is a hammertoe?

A hammertoe is a crooked toe that is the result of tendon imbalance. Over time the tendons in the feet will gradually pull the toes up. The tendon imbalance is due to foot type and faulty foot mechanics.

This means that the position and mechanics of the foot cause the foot to function in a way that results in the unequal pull of the tendons on the toes. It may take decades for the hammertoes to develop.

Small shoes can contribute to the development of hammertoes, but most likely, the hammertoes are due to either a high or low arch foot. The pull of the tendons on the top of the foot will not equal the pull of the tendons on the bottom of the foot.

Signs And Symptoms Of Hammertoe

Hammertoe is a condition in which a toe(s) becomes bent and crooked and starts looking like claws. They look as if the person is deliberately keeping his toe folded.  Essentially the tip of the toe is pointing down while the first joint is cocked up in a somewhat awkward position.

It may affect one or many toes of the afoot, which can be very painful. It is, in fact, the most common ailment of the little toe.  For this reason, knowing these hammertoe symptoms can be a really big advantage in early detection and avoidance.

  • This condition affects the second toe, which is the closest to the big toe most of the time. The toe will appear bent up and looks awkward. It can also affect other toes as well.  If you wear pointed shoes, play many sports such as running, or wear heels, this is the toe you particularly want to keep an eye on.
  • The toes may have calluses or corns on them, which can also be quite painful. The corns may appear on all toes as well as the affected toe.
  • The toenail of the affected toe may tap or scrape on the ground when walking, creating irritation and lack of comfort.
  • Inflammation and burning may be accompanied by redness of the skin
  • You may be uncomfortable when wearing shoes and may feel pain while walking. General walking can also become painful because the bent-up toe resists being straightened. Also, when a person walks, the toes become straightened, and in the case of the person affected with a hammertoe, he may feel pain when walking.
  • Blisters and open sores may also become a problem

Causes Of Hammer Toe

The following are the usual causes of hammertoe:

  • The most common cause here is that the person wears shoes or footwear too tight. The tight space in which the toes fit forces the toes to fold up. The prolonged usage of tight footwear affects the bones and tendons and makes them shortened. The shoes can be either short in size or too tight at the toe end. So even if the person removes his shoes, the toes remain locked in the same position.  Any footwear that forces the toes close together or does not give enough space in the toe box can give birth to the hammertoe condition.
  • High heeled footwear is another cause of hammertoe. The high heels make the body put its weight onto the toes unnatural.  This creates extra stress on the toes, forcing them toes to bend up.  You can try and simulate this by lifting yourself on your toes and observing the difference.  Peep toes can also be a disadvantage for some because they can also contribute to the hammertoe condition.
  • Some people may be affected with hammertoe from birth or may develop the same as they grow up, but this is related to genetic problems rather than anything the individual has done wrong.
  • Arthritis and sometimes problems with the spinal cord and nervous systems can also cause hammertoe.

Hammertoe treatment is possible if you can identify the hammertoe symptoms and causes.  If you are lucky to detect the problem early on, the treatment will be simple and could be done with some exercises and a splint or orthotic device.

On the other hand, if the condition has progressed then you may have to consider surgery. The ligaments will be relaxed using surgical methods allowing the toe to straighten out.  This is usually followed up with the use of an Orthotic device.

Injection of Corticosteroids is also sometimes used to treat inflammation and pain caused by hammertoes.  Another option is to take oral pain relief, usually ibuprofen.

Related: Hammer toe surgery

How to Prevent Hammer Toes

Follow these guidelines for hammertoe prevention:

  • Avoid shoes that are too tight, short, pointed, or have narrow toes.
  • Avoid high-heeled shoes that push the weight of your body forward on the toes.
  • If your shoes hurt, please do not wear them.
  • Wear shoes with wide toes that are a half-inch longer than your longest toe.

The early symptom of hammertoe deformity is pain, so do not ignore foot pain.  Hammertoe prevention in the initial stage can be done by wearing toe-friendly shoes and doing flattening exercises for the toes regularly.

This can be done by soaking feet in warm water daily for 15 minutes and stretching exercises for toes and ankles.

Next: Best Hammer toe splints

Two Simple Toe Exercises

Hammertoe treatment involves straightening the toes by making the toe tendons flexible again.  This can be done by surgical intervention or by doing some simple foot exercises. If your job involves long periods of standing or walking, then hammer toe prevention can be done by doing these two simple exercises for your tired toes:

  • Exercise #1:  The simples exercise for hammertoe prevention is to place a piece of cloth or towel on the floor and pick it up only using your toes with your heel resting on the floor.  Repeat this procedure at least 10-15 times.
  • Exercise #2:  This is a very effective exercise and can be used as hammertoe prevention or treatment.  Just sit on the floor with your feet stretched out. Take a towel under your toes and apply backward pressure with the towel on your toes.

Besides exercises for hammertoe prevention, you can use over-the-counter crest pads, cushions, or straps to alleviate pain and comfort your tiring toes.  However, if your pain persists and lasts for several days, contact your healthcare professional or podiatrist for evaluation and treatment.

Hammertoe is not a threatening condition, but if it is not treated in the early stage, the toes become stiff and bent permanently.  In such advanced cases, surgical intervention is the only option.