Hammer toe is a contracture (bending) of one or both joints of the second, third, fourth, or fifth (little) toes. This abnormal bending can put pressure on the toe when wearing shoes, causing problems to develop. Hammertoes usually start out as mild deformities and get progressively worse over time. In the earlier stages, hammer toes are flexible and the symptoms can often be managed with noninvasive measures. But if left untreated, hammer toes can become more rigid and will not respond to non-surgical treatment. Because of the progressive nature of hammertoes, they should receive early attention. Hammertoes never get better without some kind of intervention.
Hammer toe most frequently results from wearing poorly fitting shoes that can force the toe into a bent position, such as excessively high heels or shoes that are too short or narrow for the foot. Having the toes bent for long periods of time can cause the muscles in them to shorten, resulting in the hammer toe deformity. This is often found in conjunction with bunions or other foot problem (e.g., a bunion can force the big toe to turn inward and push the other toes). It can also be caused by muscle, nerve, or joint damage resulting from conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, complex regional pain syndrome or diabetes. Hammer toe can also be found in Friedreich’s ataxia.
Pain on the bottom of your foot, especially under the ball of your foot, is one of the most common symptoms associated with hammertoes. Other common signs and symptoms of hammertoes include pain at the top of your bent toe from footwear pressure. Corns on the top of your bent toe. Redness and swelling in your affected area. Decreased joint range of motion in your affected toe joints.
Most health care professionals can diagnose hammertoe simply by examining your toes and feet. X-rays of the feet are not needed to diagnose hammertoe, but they may be useful to look for signs of some types of arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis) or other disorders that can cause hammertoe. If the deformed toe is very painful, your doctor may recommend that you have a fluid sample withdrawn from the joint with a needle so the fluid can be checked for signs of infection or gout (arthritis from crystal deposits).
Non Surgical Treatment
Many people start by treating the problem themselves when they have a painful corn or callus. They try to remove the corn by cutting it off or by applying strong acids, and they try to cushion the toe by applying cushioned pads. Because these treatments can be difficult to perform by oneself (and should never be done by oneself when the patient is diabetic or circulation is poor), and because these treatments only treat the symptom, not the structural deformity that causes their symptom, these treatments can often provide only limited success, and often any success is for only short periods of time. Changes in shoe choices and various types of paddings and other appliances may help, too. For longer-lasting help, we must examine the cause of the deformity. The reason for knowing the cause is that the type of treatment will vary, depending upon the cause of the complaint. Orthotics help control the causes of certain types of contracted toes, (those caused by flexor stabilization, for example), but not other types.
Any surgery must be carefully considered and approached in a serious manner, as any procedure is serious for the patient. But in hammertoe most cases the procedure is relatively straight forward. The surgery can be done using local anesthetic and does not require hospitalization. The patient goes home in a special post-operative shoe or a regular sandal, and in most cases can walk immediately. That’s not to say that the patient is walking or functioning normally immediately after the procedure. The patient must take some time off work to rest the foot and allow it to heal.
Few people realize that their feet grow over the years: actually, the heel stays the same, but the front of the foot becomes wider and longer. The result, most women wear shoes that fit at the heel but are much too narrow in the front. Buy shoes that fit the longer foot. For two out of three people, one foot is significantly bigger than the other. Have both feet measured whenever you buy shoes. Have your feet measured while you’re standing, and buy shoes that fit the larger foot. Shop at the end of the day, when foot swelling is greatest. No shoe should feel tight. Don’t go by numbers. You may think of yourself as a size 8B, but size varies from shoe to shoe. There is no standardization, so pick the shoes that fit best. Limit high-heel use. These shoes increase pressure on the front of the foot by at least 50 percent, so wear them only for special occasions. Flat shoes are more comfortable than high heels, but they, too, can be hard on your feet, especially if they are thin-soled. Change your shoes. If your shoes are too short or too narrow, get another pair. 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-especially if hammer toes have started to develop.