What Is Hammertoe? - Definition & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

It's hammertoe time! Learn what causes the toes to bend and stick in an unnatural position, as well as how to avoid it happening to you! Learn the treatment options and risk factors!

What is Hammertoe?

A hammertoe is a deformity in the foot, causing the second, third, or fourth toe to be permanently bent in the middle joint, causing the toe to resemble a hammer (hence, its name!) or a claw. They are most commonly found in women who wear narrow shoes, such as high heels, that cause the toes to bend unnaturally for extended periods of time.

A hammertoe may be difficult or painful to move, and the skin may become callused from rubbing against the inside of the shoe. In fact, there are two types of hammertoe: flexible and rigid. Flexible hammertoes can still move at the joint and are indicative of an earlier, milder form of the problem. Rigid hammertoes occur when the tendon no longer moves, and at this stage, surgery is usually necessary to fix the problem.

An example of hammertoe in the second toe. The toe is permanently bent at the middle joint, causing the toe to resemble a hammer.
hammertoe

Hammertoe Causes

Hammertoe has three main culprits: tight shoes, trauma, and nerve injuries or disorders.

When toes are crowded in shoes that are too tight and narrow, they are unable to rest flat, and this curled toe position may become permanent even when you aren't wearing shoes due to the tendons of the toe permanently tightening. When the tendons are held in one position for too long, the muscles tighten and eventually become unable to stretch back out. A similar situation may result when tendons are injured due to trauma, such as a stubbed, jammed, or broken toe.

Medical problems, such as stroke or diabetes that affect the nerves, may also lead to hammertoe. For example, diabetes can result in poor circulation, especially in the feet. As a result, the person may not feel that their toes are bent into unnatural positions.

The likelihood of developing hammertoe increases with age and may be affected by gender (more common in women) and toe length; for example, when the second toe is longer than the big toe, hammertoe is more likely to occur. Hammertoe may also be present at birth. Genetics may factor in to developing hammertoe, particularly if the foot is flat or has a high arch, resulting in instability.

How Do We Treat Hammertoe?

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.

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