Hammertoes are one of the most common toe deformities—and can be a constant source of both pain and embarrassment for those who have them.
In this condition, one or more of your toes remain “stuck” in a bent position, totally unable to lay flat on its own. And while this might be a mere annoyance at first, continuing to ignore the problem may lead to more serious consequences.
Hammertoes are most common in the second toes of each foot, but any of the smaller toes may be affected as well.
What Are the Symptoms of Hammertoes?
Obviously, the characteristic bend in the toes is a visual deformity that many people may feel self-conscious about.
But beyond that, hammertoes can be linked with significant pain and irritation—especially where the bent joint or the toe tip are forced to constantly rub against the inside of your shoes. Corns and calluses frequently form at these points, as well as between the toes. You could even develop an open sore, which could be especially dangerous for those with diabetes.
It’s also worth noting that, without treatment, hammertoes will get progressively worse, and also more rigid. While a “young” hammertoe can still be manually put back into place using your fingers, the joint gradually becomes more immobile and arthritic over time.
What Causes Hammertoes?
At the fundamental level, hammertoes are the result of a growing muscle, tendon, or ligament imbalance in the toes.
Normally, these soft tissues work in pairs to both flex and extend a joint. However, when the strength of these tissues gets out of balance, they may not be able to hold the toe straight any longer.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, including:
- Genetics. Due to biomechanical factors such as longer-than-average toe length, arch height, pronation style, and others, you may be naturally more prone to developing hammertoes. This deformity does tend to run in families.
- Footwear. Certain types of shoes may force your toes to bend, curl up, crowd together, or bear excess weight. These conditions may trigger, accelerate, or exacerbate the development of a hammertoe.
- Injuries. Both direct trauma and repetitive overuse can weaken or damage the joints and muscles of the toe, which increases your risk of developing the deformity.
- Neurological disorders. Damage to the nerves that control the toe muscles can lead to a permanent imbalance.
How Are Hammertoes Treated?
The unfortunate truth about hammertoes is that, like other progressive deformities, there’s no way for the toe to go back to the way it was on its own. The only way to fully fix it is with surgery.
That said, if your hammertoe is still relatively mild and flexible and not causing you pain (yet), you do have some options—including conservative treatments. While they won’t be able to get your toe to lie flat on its own, they may keep you from experiencing discomfort or disability.
Generally speaking, conservative care is only really workable with hammertoes if the joint is still flexible—that is, you can move it with your fingers; it just won’t stay flat on its own.
Treatment options include:
- Taping/splinting. We may recommend these options to help hold your toe flat and minimize painful friction.
- Padding. Nonmedicated pads can also help reduce friction and avoid painful blisters and corns.
- Shoes. Make sure you wear shoes that provide ample space for the toes to move.
- Orthotics. If your hammertoes are caused by a biomechanical or structural imbalance, orthotics can help keep pressure away and prevent your hammertoes from getting worse.
- Physical therapy. Various exercises to help strengthen the toes and supporting muscles may also help prevent the existing muscle imbalance from worsening.
Surgery may be performed for either a flexible or rigid hammertoe. That said, we would typically only recommend it if you’ve already attempted conservative treatments for at least three months and are still experience pain or limited ability to enjoy your preferred lifestyle.
Even though surgery is considered more of a last resort, that doesn’t mean you should be afraid. As a matter of fact, hammertoe surgery has a very high overall rate of success. Although there will be some downtime after the procedure, we work hard to make sure you have all the information you need to make a complete, successful recovery.
The sooner you see us, though, the more treatment options we’ll be able to give you for your hammertoes—and the less likely you will need a surgical procedure in the near future. To schedule an appointment with the team at Precision Foot and Ankle, please call our office today at (727) 399-7167.