Hammer Toe

What Is a Hammer Toe?

A hammer toe is a deformity that causes your toe to bend or curl downward instead of pointing forward. This deformity can affect any toe on your foot. It most often affects the second or third toe. Although a hammer toe may be present at birth, it usually develops over time due to wearing ill-fitting shoes, such as tight, pointed heels, or arthritis. In most cases, a hammer toe condition is treatable.

What Causes a Hammer Toe to Form?

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Your toe contains two joints that allow it to bend at the middle and bottom. A hammer toe occurs when the middle joint becomes dislocated.

Common causes of this joint dislocation include:

  • a traumatic toe injury
  • arthritis
  • an unusually high foot arch
  • wearing shoes that don’t fit properly
  • tightened ligaments or tendons in the foot
  • pressure from a bunion, which is when your big toe points inward toward your second toe

Spinal cord or peripheral nerve damage may cause all of your toes to curl downward.

Risk Factors for a Hammer Toe

Risk Factors

Certain risk factors increase your likelihood of developing a hammer toe. These include:

  • a family history of hammer toe
  • chronically wearing tight or pointy-toed shoes
  • having calluses, bunions, or corns, which are thickened layers of skin caused by prolonged and repeated friction

Wearing shoes that are too small can force the joint of your toes into a dislocated position. This makes it impossible for your muscles to stretch out. Over time, the practice of wearing improperly fitting shoes increases your risk of developing:

  • hammer toes
  • blisters
  • bunions
  • corns

Signs and Symptoms

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A hammer toe causes you discomfort when you walk. It can also cause you pain when you try to stretch or move the affected toe or those around it. Hammer toe symptoms may be mild or severe.

Mild Symptoms

  • a toe that bends downward
  • corns or calluses
  • difficulty walking
  • inability to flex your foot or wiggle your toes
  • claw-like toes

Severe Symptoms

See your doctor or podiatrist right away if you develop any of these symptoms.

How Is a Hammer Toe Diagnosed?

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A doctor can usually diagnose a hammer toe during a physical exam. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, may be necessary if you’ve had a bone, muscle, or ligament injury in your toe.

How Is a Hammer Toe Treated?

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The severity of your condition determines the treatment options for a hammer toe.

Treatment for a Mild Hammer Toe

You can correct a hammer toe caused by inappropriate footwear by wearing properly fitting shoes. If a high arch caused the condition, wearing toe pads or insoles in your shoes can help. These pads work by shifting your toe’s position, which relieves pain and corrects the appearance of your toe.

You can usually use over-the-counter (OTC) cushions, pads, or medications to treat bunions and corns. However, if they’re painful or if they cause your toes to become deformed, your doctor may opt to surgically remove them.

Don’t pop any blisters on your toes. Popping blisters can cause pain and infection. Use OTC creams and cushions to relieve pain and keep blisters from rubbing against the inside of your shoes.

Gently stretching your toes can also help relieve pain and reposition the affected toe.

Treatment for a Severe Hammer Toe

If you’re unable to flex your toe, surgery is the only option to restore movement. Surgery can reposition the toe, remove deformed or injured bone, and realign your tendons. Surgery is normally done on an outpatient basis, so you can return home on the day of your surgery.

How Can I Avoid Getting a Hammer Toe?

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The best hammer toe prevention tip is to wear properly fitting shoes. If your shoes feel too snug, go to your local shoe store and have the length and width of your feet measured.

If you wear high heels, the heel height should be 2 inches or less. Wearing shoes with high heels increases the pressure on your toes and causes them to bend. It can also cause the formation of corns and a high arch.

What Can I Expect After Treatment?

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After treating the cause of your hammer toe, it usually goes away without complications. However, waiting too long to seek treatment can cause your surrounding toes to become deformed as the hammer toe forces them out of position. It’s best to get treatment as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed.

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