The term, Hammer toes, is commonly used as a general classification for any condition where the toe muscle weakens, causing digital contracture, and resulting in deformity, 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.
Hammer toe results from shoes that don’t fit properly or a muscle imbalance, usually in combination with one or more other factors. Muscles work in pairs to straighten and bend the toes. If the toe is bent and held in one position long enough, the muscles tighten and cannot stretch out. Shoes that narrow toward the toe may make your forefoot look smaller. But they also push the smaller toes into a flexed (bent) position. The toes rub against the shoe, leading to the formation of corns and calluses, which further aggravate the condition. A higher heel forces the foot down and squishes the toes against the shoe, increasing the pressure and the bend in the toe. Eventually, the toe muscles become unable to straighten the toe, even when there is no confining shoe.
A hammertoe may be present but not always painful unless irritated by shoes. One may have enlarged toe joints with some thickened skin and no redness or swelling. However, if shoes create pressure on the joint, the pain will usually range from pinching and squeezing to sharp and burning. In long standing conditions, the dislocated joints can cause the pain of arthritis.
A hammertoe is usually diagnosed with a physical inspection of your toe. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, may be ordered if you have had a bone, muscle, or ligament injury in your toe.
Non Surgical Treatment
The most common treatment is to wear more comfortable shoes. When choosing a shoe, make sure the toe area is high and broad and has enough room for hammer toes. If there is chronic pain, surgery may be needed to correct a malalignment. Surgical treatments are aimed at loosening up the contracted toe joints to allow them to align properly. Other types of treatment are products designed to relieve hammer toes, such as hammer toe crests and hammer toe splints. These devices will help hold down the hammer toe and provide relief to the forefoot. Gel toe shields and gel toe caps can also be used. Gel toe shields and toe caps will help eliminate friction between the shoe and the toe, while providing comfort and lubrication.
If conservative treatments fail and your symptoms persist, the doctor may recommend a surgical option to straighten the toe. The procedures used vary greatly, depending upon the reasons for the hammertoe. There are a number of different operations to correct hammertoes, the most common ones involve Soft tissue corrections such as tendon transfers, tendon lengthening, and joint capsule repairs. Digital arthroplasty involves removal of bone from the bent joint to allow the toe to straighten. The temporary use of pins or K-wires may be necessary to keep the toe straight during the healing period. Joint implants are sometimes used to allow for a better range of motion in the toe following surgery. Digital arthrodesis involves the removal of bone from the bent joint and fusing the toe in a straight position. If the corn is due to a bone spur, the most common procedure used is an exostectomy, in which surgically removing it or filing it down removes the bone spur. Because of the possible complications involved with any surgery, one should be sure to understand the risks that may be involved with surgery to correct hammertoes and remove bone spurs.
Although the feet naturally change over time, and abnormalities like hammertoes may be hereditary for some patients, steps may be taken to prevent their development in the first place. Just as better fitting shoes are a treatment, they are also a preventative measure for hammertoes. In addition, your podiatrist may suggest orthotics to improve the biomechanics of your feet in an effort to prevent the development of hammertoes or other abnormalities. Calf stretching and other exercises may also be used to reverse or treat muscle imbalances that could eventually lead to hammertoe development.