Hammertoe is a painful deformity wherein a toe bends unnaturally
Hammertoe can develop on any of the toes, but generally affects the middle three and, most often, the second toe.
When unusual stress is applied over a period of years, the joints and tendons of your foot can cease to function in a balanced manner and toes, in an effort to compensate, can begin to bend into the hammertoe shape. Hammertoes tend to run in families.
Hammertoe is caused when muscles fail to work in a balanced manner and the toe joints bend to form the hammertoe shape. If they remain in this position, the muscles and tendons supporting them tighten and stay that way.
Causes of hammertoe can include:
- Squeezing into a too-small or ill-fitting shoe or wearing high heels that jam your toes into a tight toe box
- An injury such as badly stubbing your toe
- Nerve and muscle damage from diseases such as diabetes
The most obvious sign of hammertoes are bent toes, other symptoms may include:
- Pain and stiffness during movement of the toe
- Painful corns on the tops of the toe or toes from rubbing against the top of the shoe’s toe box
- Painful calluses on the bottoms of the toe or toes
- Pain on the bottom of the ball of the foot
- Redness and swelling at the joints
Prevention is better than cure
As long as hammertoe causes no pain or any change in your walking or running gait, it isn’t harmful and doesn’t require treatment.
The key to prevention is to wear shoes that fit you properly and provide plenty of room for your toes. Here’s how to get the right fit:
- Have your feet properly measured
- Make sure that, while standing, there is a centimetre (½ thumb) of space for your longest toe at the end of each shoe
- Buy shoes that fit the longer foot
- Shop at the end of the day, when foot swelling is greatest.
- Don’t go by numbers – sizes vary by brand, so make certain your shoes are comfortable
- Wear wide shoes with resilient soles
- Avoid shoes with pointed toes
- Certain exercises such as moving and stretching your toe gently with your hands and picking up small or soft objects such as marbles or towels can keep your toe joints flexible, simple exercises can stretch and strengthen your muscles
- Limit high-heel use, well-designed flat shoes will be more comfortable than high heels
- Don’t wear shoes that are too short or too narrow, or too shallow – this is especially important for children going through periods of rapid growth, the toe area should be high enough so that it doesn’t rub against the top of your toes
When to see a Podiatrist
The hammertoe condition is usually irreversible, but often its progression can be slowed or halted. You should visit a Podiatrist if the toe becomes painful and you have difficulty walking. A Podiatrist will be able to provide advice and treatment including padding the bony top-part of your hammertoe to relieve pain or to tape your toes as a way to change their position.
Podiatrists have an important role to play in preventing and managing foot problems. Prompt action is important. Problems which are left without assessment or treatment may result in major health risks.