Hammer toes affects both joints of a toe, causing the toe to bend upwards at the proximal joint (the joint closest to the foot) and down at the distal joint (the one farthest away from the foot). The resulting unnatural bend is often compared to an upside down "V" and also to a hammer or a claw (The condition is sometimes referred to as clawtoe or clawfoot). A similar condition, in which the first joint of a toe simply bends downward, is called mallet toe. Since the arched bending of hammertoe often causes the toe to rub against the top of the shoe's toe box and against the sole, painful corns and calluses develop on the toes. Hammertoe can also be a result of squeezing within a too-small or ill-fitting shoe or wearing high heels that jam your toes into a tight toe box inside your shoe, arthritis, trauma and muscle and nerve damage from diseases such as diabetes. Probably because of the tight-shoe and high-heel shoe factors, hammertoe tends to occur far more often in women than in men.
Your shoes, your genetic predisposition, an underlying medical condition or all of these can make you susceptible to developing one of these deformities of the toes. The genes your parents gave you. When it comes to genetics, the foot type you?re born with predisposes you to developing this type of joint deformity over a lifetime. For many, a flat flexible foot leads to hammertoes as the foot tries to stabilize against a flattening arch. Those with high arches can also form hammertoes as the extensor tendons overpower the flexors.
If the toes remain in the hammertoe position for long periods, the tendons on the top of the foot will tighten over time because they are not stretched to their full length. Eventually, the tendons shorten enough that the toe stays bent, even when shoes are not being worn. The symptoms of hammertoe include a curling toe, pain or discomfort in the toes and ball of the foot or the front of the leg, especially when toes are stretched downward, thickening of the skin above or below the affected toe with the formation of corns or calluses, difficulty finding shoes that fit well. In its early stages, hammertoe is not obvious. Frequently, hammertoe does not cause any symptoms except for the claw-like toe shape.
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
In the earlier stages of hammer toe, when the toes can still be manually straightened, then conservative treatment is appropriate. This means wearing shoes which are a half size bigger than normal and which are not narrow around the toes. Exercises to stretch the toes out and strengthen the muscles under the foot which balances the tightness of the top tendons are important. Padding or corn plasters can be used to ease the discomfort of any associated corns and calluses.
Ordinary hammertoe procedures often use exposed wires which extend outside the end of toes for 4-6 weeks. Common problems associated with wires include infection where the wires come out of the toe, breakage, pain from hitting the wire, and lack of rotational stability causing the toe to look crooked. In addition, wires require a second in-office procedure to remove them, which can cause a lot of anxiety for many patients. Once inserted, implants remain within the bone, correcting the pain and deformity of hammertoes while eliminating many of the complications specific traditional treatments.
The best treatment is good prevention! Hammertoe can be prevented by wearing shoes with ample toe room, avoiding high heels, and wearing adjustable shoes to assure a looser fit. When buying shoes, shop at the end of the day when your feet are swollen from daily activity, try both shoes on to confirm they fit properly, and if necessary, visit a shoe repair store to see if they can stretch your shoes for a better fit.