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What is a hammer toe?

“Hammer toe” is a foot condition where one or more of your toes bend or curl downward instead of pointing forward, usually affecting the second or third toe. The condition can be present from birth or develop over time due to wearing ill-fitting shoes, arthritis, or a traumatic toe injury. Initially, hammer toes are flexible, but if left untreated, they can become rigid and require surgery for correction.

There is another condition that is similar to hammer toe called mallet toe, which becomes evident in the 3rd toe. The difference between hammer and mallet toe is the joint that is bent. With hammer toe, it is the middle joint that is bent. With mallet toe, the toe joint that is closest to the toenail is bent.

What can cause a hammer toe?

Various factors can cause hammer toe, often related to imbalances in the foot’s structural components or pressure on the toes. Here are some common causes.

  • Ill-fitting shoes:Too tight, narrow, or high-heeled shoes can force your toes into a bent position. Over time, the muscles controlling your toes can fail to straighten out, leading to a hammer toe.
  • Muscle-tendon imbalance:In a normal foot, there’s a balance between the pull of muscles. However, an imbalance—such as when one set of muscles or tendons becomes stronger or weaker than the other—can cause the toe to bend and assume the characteristic “hammer-like” shape.
  • Trauma:A severe blow or toe injury can also lead to a hammer toe.
  • Nerve and muscle disorders:Certain conditions that affect your nerves and muscles, like Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, can also cause hammer toe.
  • Aging:The risk of developing hammer toe increases with age, mainly due to the weakening or imbalance of muscle strength in the toes.
  • Genetics:Some people inherit a tendency to develop foot problems like hammer toe.

What are the symptoms of a hammer toe, and how is it diagnosed?

A hammer toe manifests as a toe that curls downward, often accompanied by corns or calluses from friction against shoes. The toe may become red, swollen, and have limited movement. As the condition progresses, changes in walking patterns, such as a developed limp to avoid putting pressure on the toe, might also occur.

To diagnose hammer toe, a doctor will typically conduct a physical examination of your foot. They’ll assess the flexibility of your toe and the presence of corns or calluses. They might also ask you to walk or move your foot to evaluate your pain and mobility. In some cases, imaging tests like X-rays may be used to determine the severity of the hammer toe and check for other foot problems.

What are the treatment and aftercare options for hammer toe?

For less severe cases, non-surgical treatments can often alleviate pain and improve toe flexibility.

  • Padding and taping:The use of padding and taping can reduce pain and let you carry on with your normal activities. A straight toe is easier to keep that way by taping or splinting it.
  • Orthotic devices:Controlling muscle-tendon imbalance can be done with the aid of orthotic devices, or custom-made shoe inserts.
  • Physical therapy:Exercises can be used as part of physical therapy to balance muscles, increase flexibility, and strengthen the toe muscles.
  • Medications:Over-the-counter painkillers and corticosteroid injections can help reduce inflammation and pain.

Surgery to straighten the toe may be advised in more severe situations where it has grown stiff. In accordance with the particulars of the toe’s condition, a variety of procedures, including tendon transfer, joint resection, and fusion, may be carried out.

Navigating the curve

We at Texas Orthopaedic Associates believe that no one should have to deal with the anguish and pain that hammer toe causes. Our skilled podiatrists and healthcare specialists are ready to help you on your path to foot health. Contact us today to set up an appointment.