A hammertoe is a term used to describe a crooked, deviated, or contracted toe. Although the condition usually stems from muscle imbalance, it is often aggravated by poor-fitting shoes or socks that cramp the toes. Over a period of years, the tendons that move the toe up and down begin to pull the toe with unequal tension, and the toe then begins to buckle or become contracted, causing an abnormal “v”-shaped bending of the little toes. Patients with this condition often experience pain, swelling, redness and stiffness in the affected toes.
A hammer toe develops because of an abnormal balance of the muscles in the toes. This abnormal Hammer toe balance causes increased pressures on the tendons and joints of the toe, leading to its contracture. Heredity and trauma can also lead to the formation of a hammer toe. Arthritis is another factor, because the balance around the toe in people with arthritis is disrupted. Wearing shoes that are too tight and cause the toes to squeeze can also cause a hammer toe to form.
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.
The earlier a hammertoe is diagnosed, the better the prognosis and treatment options. Your doctor will be able to diagnose your hammertoe with a simple examination of the foot and your footwear. He or she may take an x-ray to check the severity of the condition. You may also be asked about your symptoms, your normal daily activities, and your medical and family history.
Non Surgical Treatment
Pad it. Mild cases of hammertoe can be treated with corn pads or felt pads available in the pharmacy. Toe caps, the small, padded sleeves that fit around the tip of the toe, may relieve hammer toe pain. Change your shoes. Wear wide shoes with resilient soles. Avoid shoes with pointed toes. Exercise. Certain exercises such as moving and stretching your toe gently with your hands and picking small or soft objects such as marbles or towels can keep your toe joints flexible. Also, while you are watching television or reading, you can also put a towel flat under your feet and use your toes to crumple it. This simple exercise can stretch and strengthen your muscles. Use ice. If your hammer toe becomes painful, applying an ice pack several times a day can help relieve the soreness and swelling.
Take medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (also called NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen may be helpful in minimizing pain and inflammation. Use orthotic devices. Place a custom orthotic device in your shoe. This will help control the muscle/tendon imbalance.
Surgical Options: Several surgical procedures are available to the podiatric physician. For less severe deformities, the surgery will remove the bony prominence and restore normal alignment of the toe joint, thus relieving pain. Severe hammer toes, which are not fully reducible, may require more complex surgical procedures. Recuperation takes time, and some swelling and discomfort are common for several weeks following surgery. Any pain, however, is easily managed with medications prescribed by your podiatrist.
The best first step you can take is to evaluate your shoe choices. Ditch any shoes that aren?t serving your feet well. Shoes that crowd the front of your foot, especially around your toes, aggravate the existing condition and can also cause the condition to develop. If you suspect the development of hammertoe, you may also try using protective pads to prevent irritation and the development of corns. Custom orthotics to correct muscle imbalances in your feet may also help prevent hammertoe.