What Are Hammertoes [and What Can You Do About Them]?

Nov 2, 2021

Hammertoes, unfortunately, do not provide you the ability to drive nails into wood with your feet. The actual condition is much less useful and exceptionally more bothersome.

A hammertoe is a deformity in which a toe bends at a joint and refuses to lie straight while at rest. As the condition progresses, the toe can become more rigid and harder to bend. This can not only be painful in itself but cause troublesome secondary symptoms as well.

Early detection and management are the best ways to keep hammertoes from having a severe negative impact on your life. In many of these situations, conservative methods can be enough to continue doing what you love with much less discomfort – and no need for surgery.

Why Do I Have Hammertoes?

Hammertoes develop due to an imbalance in the structure of the toes – often inherited but sometimes not.

Each toe has a set of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that work in harmony to hold the digit straight while at rest. Should an imbalance in these tissues occur, though, one can overpower the others, pulling and causing a bend in a joint.

A hammertoe forms when that bend is in the middle joint of a toe. Related conditions such as mallet toe and claw toe cause bends in other joints or more than one joint.

Many people are simply born with structural abnormalities that make this imbalance more likely, but there can be other causes as well. Nerve damage from trauma, diabetes or other conditions can cause a shift in balance. People who have had a history of severe sprains or fractures in the toes are also more likely to develop hammertoes.

Anything that forces more weight against the forefoot and toes over time can also help an existing imbalance become worse. Spending time in shoes with tight or narrow toe boxes and/or high heels all place much more pressure on the forefoot and toes than is needed, and can easily cause further destabilization to the joints.

What Are the Effects of Hammertoes on the Feet?

In the earliest stages of a hammertoe, the bend in the joint will be present but can still be forced down by pressing on the toe. The hammertoe is considered flexible during this period.

However, as time passes, the joint often becomes more rigid and harder to bend. Eventually, the joint may lock entirely.

Trying to bend a hammertoe can cause pain or discomfort, which typically worsens as the condition progresses. In addition to these inherent symptoms, though, there comes the consequences of trying to live in a world that wasn’t made for hammertoes to begin with.

Many types of footwear just don’t accommodate a bent toe very well. This leads to the “knuckle” of a toe consistently rubbing against the inside of a shoe, which can cause friction-based problems like corns, calluses, and blisters. If a toe is significantly out of alignment, it might rub against neighboring toes as well.

How Can Hammertoes Be Treated?

It is very important to note from the start that surgery is often not the only way to address a hammertoe deformity. Many people neglect pursuing the help they need for a hammertoe because they feel nothing other than surgery can be done, but they’re often denying themselves other effective ways of finding relief!

There are two primary concerns when it comes to treating hammertoes:

  • Provide as much relief from pain, irritation, calluses, corns, and other symptoms as possible.
  • Slow or completely stop progression of the deformity.

Surgical correction of a bunion is not always required to fulfill these goals. In fact, whenever conservative methods are likely to provide the results we need, we will almost always recommend them over surgery. 

Why are conservative procedures preferred over surgery more often than not? Because as necessary as surgery may be in some cases, it can be a lot for a body to go through in terms of trauma and recovery. Not all patients are best prepared or suited for surgical procedures, and it is often best to pursue other routes if they can provide what we need.

The earlier we can evaluate a case of hammertoes, the much more likely that we can recommend effective conservative treatments. Do not wait for hammertoes to become rigid before doing anything about them!

Some of the treatments we might recommend for various hammertoes include:

  • Switching to footwear that provides more room and accommodations in the toes, reducing discomfort and friction against bent toes. Shoes with flexible and stretchy mesh can be a help in many cases.
  • Prescribing custom orthotics to off-load excess weight and pressure against the forefoot – often recommended when abnormalities in foot structure are causing such shifts.
  • The use of splints, padding, and other equipment to hold toes in a more normal position and reduce exposure of certain “hot spots” to friction.
  • Specialized stretching and exercise regimens that can strengthen and condition the tissues around the joints and other connected areas, helping to maintain range of motion and flexibility.

There is always a possibility that conservative measures will not provide as much relief of symptoms as needed, or it’s clear from the start that a case of hammertoes is so severe that it conservative measures will likely be useless. That is when surgery may enter the picture as a consideration, and we will fully discuss all surgical options with patients when that consideration arises. 

Get Help for Your Hammertoes Now!

If you have one or more hammertoes, do not delay in getting the professional evaluation and care you need. Even if your case is flexible and not causing you any problems now, that will likely not continue to be the case over time. Managing the condition as soon as possible can help prevent many future problems from developing or worsening.

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