If you have the toe deformity known as hammer toe, you know just how painful it can be. For those who don’t suffer from this condition, a hammer toe is a toe that has an abnormal bend in its middle joint, causing the toe to bend downward, resembling a hammer. It’s the most common deformity of the second, third or fourth toe, and if not treated, the affected toe(s) can become fixed in that bent position and require surgery to correct them. While not a medical emergency, hammer toe does worsen over time and should be treated by a physician.
What causes hammer toe?
According to MedicalNewsToday, hammer toe is caused by an imbalance in the affected toe’s surrounding muscles, tendons or ligaments that normally keep the toe straight. These muscles, tendons and ligaments work together to bend and straighten the toes but if one of them weakens, it cannot do its job of bending and straightening the toe. If the toe stays bent long enough, the muscles permanently tighten up and the toe will no longer be able to straighten.
These muscle weaknesses and imbalances are caused by a variety of factors, some of which are avoidable:
- Wearing high heels or shoes that are too tight through the foot box can force toes into a bent position. When worn repeatedly, the toes may not be able to straighten, even when barefoot. This is why women are more likely than men to develop hammer toe. NOTE: The more a person with hammer toe wears improper footwear and the longer they ignore the condition, the more likely the toe will require surgery to release the tendons.
- Injuries. When a toe is broken, stubbed or jammed, it may be more likely to develop hammer toe.
- Age. The risk of hammer toe increases with age.
- Toe length. If the second toe is longer than the big toe, a person is more likely to develop hammer toe.
- Certain diseases. People with conditions like arthritis or diabetes are more likely to develop foot problems, including hammer toe.
- Genetics. Sometimes, hammer toe is hereditary in families.
How to tell if you have hammer toe
- Pain in the affected toe, especially when bending/straightening it or wearing shoes
- Corns and callouses on top of the middle joint of the hammertoe
- Swelling, redness or a burning sensation in the toe
- Inability to straighten the toe
- In severe cases, open sores may develop on the toe
7 things you can do now to avoid developing hammer toe later
Hammer toe, like many other foot problems, can be avoided by wearing proper footwear, says MedicalNewsToday. When choosing shoes, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Low heels. High heels force the feet into unnatural positions and often bend the toes.
- Enough toe room. Shoes should the right size for your feet and should have enough room for your longest toe, which may not always be the big toe. Avoid pointy-toed shoes.
- Adjustability. Shoes with adjustable laces and straps are best.
- Proper arch support. Arch support prevents a number of foot ailments.
- Manually stretch your toes, especially the second, third and fourth ones, every day.
- Use a shoe insert to properly position your toes inside your shoes.
- Use over-the-counter corn pads to relieve pressure on the tops of your toes within your shoes.
Read my other podiatry blogs
I’ve written a number of informative blogs about a wide variety of foot and ankle conditions, which you can read here.
Concerned you might have hammer toe? Please come see me.
If you’re experiencing pain in one or more of your toes and are worried you might be developing hammer toe, or you have any concerns about your feet, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment to see me, a Westchester Health podiatrist. I’ll examine your feet and toes, determine if you have or are developing hammer toe, and together with you, come up with an individualized treatment and prevention plan for you going forward. Most of all, my goal is for you and your feet to be healthy and pain-free. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By John B. Viscovich, DPM, MBA, FACFAS, a Podiatrist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners