The medical term for webbing of the fingers or toes is syndactyly. Webbed fingers and toes occur when tissue connects two or more digits together. In rare cases the fingers or toes may be connected by bone. Approximately 1 in every 2,000–3,000 babies is born with webbed fingers or toes, making this a fairly common condition. Webbing of the fingers or toes is most common in Caucasian males.
There are several different types of webbing that can occur between the fingers and toes. They are:
- Incomplete: The webbing appears only partially between the digits.
- Complete: The skin is connected all the way up the digits.
- Simple: The digits are connected by only soft tissue (i.e., skin).
- Complex: The digits are joined together with soft and hard tissue, such as bone or cartilage.
- Complicated: The digits are joined together with soft and hard tissue in an irregular shape or configuration (i.e., missing bones).
What causes webbed fingers and toes?
A child’s hand initially forms in the shape of a paddle while developing in the womb. The hand begins to split and form fingers around the sixth or seventh week of pregnancy. This process is not completed successfully in the case of webbed fingers and toes, leading to digits that are fused together.
Webbing of the fingers and toes mostly occurs at random and for no known reason. It’s less commonly the result of an inherited trait. Webbing can also be related to genetic defects, such as Down syndrome and Apert syndrome. Both syndromes are genetic disorders that can cause abnormal growth of the bones in the hands and feet.
What treatment is available?
Every case of webbed fingers and toes is different, but they are always treated with surgery. Surgery is performed under general anesthesia, which means your child will be given a combination of medications to put him or her to sleep. Your child should feel no pain nor have any memory of the surgery. This surgery is usually performed on children between the ages of 1 and 2. This is when the risks of anesthesia are lower.
The webbing between the fingers or toes is split evenly in the shape of a “Z” during surgery. Extra skin is sometimes needed to completely cover the newly separated fingers or toes. In such cases, skin may be removed from the groin to cover these areas. This procedure is called a skin graft. Often only two digits are operated on at a time. Several surgeries may be required for one set of digits depending on your child’s particular case.
Your child’s hand or foot will be in a cast after surgery. The cast stays on for about three weeks before it’s removed and replaced with a brace. A rubber spacer may also be used to help keep your child’s fingers or toes separated while he or she sleeps. It’s also likely that your child will undergo physical therapy after surgery to help with things like stiffness, range of motion, and swelling.
Your child will need to have regular doctor’s appointments to check the progress of their fingers and toes. During these checkups, your child’s doctor will make sure that the incisions have healed properly. The doctor will also decide whether your child will need additional surgeries.
Thankfully, most children are able to function normally after surgery with their newly separated digits. Working with the healthcare providers assigned to help your child is important. They will help you make sure that your child achieves the best possible result.
However, it’s unlikely that surgery to correct webbing will result in a hand or foot that looks completely normal. This may cause self-esteem problems for your child. You might also find it hard to cope with your child’s abnormality. In either case, your doctor may be able to recommend local support groups whose members understand what you and your child are going through.