Hammer toe (hammertoe) is a deformity of the second, third, or fourth toes. In this condition, the toe is bent at the middle joint, into an upward position, causing it to resemble a hammer (sometimes decribed as ?curled toes?). Left untreated, hammer toes can become inflexible and require surgery. Toes which take on a curled appearance are hammer toes. Mallet toe is a similar condition, but affects the upper joint of a toe.
People who have a high-arched feet have an increased chance of hammer toes occurring. Also, patients with bunion deformities notice the second toe elevating and becoming hammered to make room for the big toe that is moving toward it. Some patients damage the ligament that holds the toe in place at the bottom of the joint that connects the toe and foot. When this ligament (plantar plate) is disrupted or torn, the toe floats upward at this joint. Hammer toes also occur in women wearing ill-fitting shoes or high heels, and children wearing shoes they have outgrown.
Hammer toes can cause problems with walking and lead to other foot problems, such as blisters, calluses, and sores. Pain is caused by constant friction over the top of the toe?s main joint. It hammertoes may be difficult to fit into some shoe gear due to the extra space required for the deformed toe. In many cases there will be pain on the ball of the foot over the metatarsals along with callus formation. This is due to the toes not functioning properly, failing to properly touch the ground during the gait cycle. The ball of the foot then takes the brunt of the ground forces, which causes chronic pain.
The exam may reveal a toe in which the near bone of the toe (proximal phalanx) is angled upward and the middle bone of the toe points in the opposite direction (plantar flexed). Toes may appear crooked or rotated. The involved joint may be painful when moved, or stiff. There may be areas of thickened skin (corns or calluses) on top of or between the toes, a callus may also be observed at the tip of the affected toe beneath the toenail. An attempt to passively correct the deformity will help elucidate the best treatment option as the examiner determines whether the toe is still flexible or not. It is advisable to assess palpable pulses, since their presence is associated with a good prognosis for healing after surgery. X-rays will demonstrate the contractures of the involved joints, as well as possible arthritic changes and bone enlargements (exostoses, spurs). X-rays of the involved foot are usually performed in a weight-bearing position.
Non Surgical Treatment
Apply a commercial, nonmedicated hammertoe pad around the bony prominence of the hammertoe. This will decrease pressure on the area. Wear a shoe with a deep toe box. If the hammertoe becomes inflamed and painful, apply ice packs several times a day to reduce swelling. Avoid heels more than two inches tall. A loose-fitting pair of shoes can also help protect the foot while reducing pressure on the affected toe, making walking a little easier until a visit to your podiatrist can be arranged. It is important to remember that, while this treatment will make the hammertoe feel better, it does not cure the condition. A trip to the podiatric physician?s office will be necessary to repair the toe to allow for normal foot function. Avoid wearing shoes that are too tight or narrow. Children should have their shoes properly fitted on a regular basis, as their feet can often outgrow their shoes rapidly. See your podiatric physician if pain persists.
If your toe is not bendable, your doctor may recommend surgery. The type of surgery that will be performed will depend on the severity of the condition. You should expect blood and urine studies before the procedure, as well as x-rays of your feet. Your doctor will inject either a local or regional anesthetic. If your toe has some flexibility, the doctor may be able to straighten it by simply making an incision in the toe to release or lengthen the tendon. If the toe is not flexible, your doctor will probably make the same incision to release the tendon, but he or she may also remove some pieces of the bone so that the bone can be straightened. A k-wire is placed in the toe to help hold it straight while it is healing. This is taken out after about four weeks.
To help prevent hammertoe, wear roomy, low-heeled shoes that allow plenty of width and length for the toes. The Mayo Clinic recommends wearing shoes that have at least 1/2 inch of space between the shoe and the longest toe.