If the joint on one of your toes — usually the toe next to the big toe or the smallest toe — points upward rather than lying flat, you might have a hammertoe.
The condition is actually a deformity that happens when one of the toe muscles becomes weak and puts pressure on the toe’s tendons and joints. This pressure forces the toe to become misshapen and stick up at the joint.
Also, there’s frequently a corn or callus on top of the deformed toe. This outgrowth can cause pain when it rubs against the shoe.
“The term, hammertoe, is commonly used as a general classification for any condition where the toe muscle weakens, causing digital contracture, and resulting in deformity,” explains podiatrist Dina Stock, DPM.
But she adds that a digital contracture like this can actually be a hammertoe, claw toe or mallet toe, depending on which joints in the toe are contracted.
Clawtoes are bent at the middle and end joints, while hammertoes are bent at the middle joint only. When it’s mallet toe, the joint at the end of the toe buckles. The skin near the toenail tip develops a painful corn that can eventually result in an ulcer.
Doctors further categorize all forms of hammertoe based on whether the affected toe is flexible, semi-rigid or rigid. The more rigid the toe, the more pain it will cause.
Why it happens
Your shoes, your genetic predisposition, an underlying medical condition or all of these can make you susceptible to developing one of these deformities of the toes.
- The genes your parents gave you. According to Dr. Stock, when it comes to genetics, the foot type you’re born with predisposes you to developing this type of joint deformity over a lifetime. “For many, a flat flexible foot leads to hammertoes as the foot tries to stabilize against a flattening arch. Those with high arches can also form hammertoes as the extensor tendons overpower the flexors.”
- Those fashionable shoes. “Women tend to cram their feet into too-narrow, ill-fitting shoes with little to no arch support. That’s why we see more hammertoes in women than men,” explains podiatrist Georgeanne Botek, DPM. Pointy, high-heeled shoes put severe pressure on the toes and their joints, and they typically have little to no arch support.
- Other ailments. Neuromuscular diseases can contribute to the development of hammertoe, too. People with diabetes can be at increased risk for complications from a hammertoe. “In diabetics, if a toe has a corn or other ulceration, it indicates there is too much pressure on the toes. In those with poor blood flow or neuropathy, these lesions can get infected and lead to the loss of a toe or foot unless shoes are modified,” Dr. Stock says.
Hammertoe prevention and treatment tips
According to Dr. Botek, surgery is the best way to permanently fix a hammertoe. The simple procedure straightens the toe, which makes shoes fit better. And your foot will look more attractive, as well.
But there are other fixes besides surgery. These include:
- Wear sensible shoes. If you don’t want to have surgery to fix your hammertoe, Dr. Stock suggests using non-medicated padding along with proper shoes made with a wider and deeper toe box to accommodate your foot’s shape. “Ensuring your shoes have a good arch support can slow the progression of the condition as well,” she says.
- Use a pumice stone. The corn or callus that forms on top of the hammertoe can cause discomfort when you wear shoes. “Treat the corn by using a file or pumice stone to reduce its size after a warm bath, then apply emollients to keep the area softened and pliable,” suggests Dr. Botek. She also recommends using silicone or moleskin padding on top of the area when wearing shoes.
- Do foot exercises. Dr. Botek says she gives her patients exercises for their toes to keep them supple and strengthen the muscles that move them. “Theoretically, exercises like extending, then curling the toes, splaying the toes, and moving the toes individually may help prevent the digital contracture that causes hammertoe,” she explains.
Try these suggestions and see what works best for you.