Hammer Toe is most common in women, and a big part of this is poor shoe choices, which are a big factor in the development of many foot problems. Tight toe boxes and high heels are the biggest culprits. Genetics certainly plays a role in some cases of hammertoes, as does trauma, infection, arthritis, and certain neurological and muscle disorders. Most cases of contracted toes are associated with various biomechanical abnormalities in how a patient walks. This causes the muscles and tendons to be used excessively or improperly, which deforms the toes over time.
Hammertoes are usually structural in nature. Many times this is the foot structure you were born with and other factors have now made it so that symptoms appear. The muscles in your foot may become unbalanced over time, allowing for a deformity of the small bones in each toe. With longstanding deformity the toe may become rigid. Sometimes one toe is longer than another and this causes a buckling of the digit. A hammertoe may also be caused by other foot deformities such as a bunion. Trauma or other surgery of your foot may predispose you to having the condition if your foot structure is altered.
Some people never have troubles with hammer toes. In fact, some people don’t even know they have them. They can become uncomfortable, especially while wearing shoes. Many people who develop symptoms with hammer toes will develop corns, blisters and pain on the top of the toe, where it rubs against the shoe or between the toes, where it rubs against the adjacent toe. You can also develop calluses on the balls of the feet, as well as cramping, aching and an overall fatigue in the foot and leg.
First push up on the bottom of the metatarsal head associated with the affected toe and see if the toe straightens out. If it does, then an orthotic could correct the problem, usually with a metatarsal pad. If the toe does not straighten out when the metatarsal head is pushed up, then that indicates that contracture in the capsule and ligaments (capsule contracts because the joint was in the wrong position for too long) of the MTP joint has set in and surgery is required. Orthotics are generally required post-surgically.
Non Surgical Treatment
If the affected toe is still flexible, you may be able to treat it by taping or splinting the toe to hold it straight. Your family doctor can show you how to do this. You may also try corrective footwear, corn pads and other devices to reduce pain. You may need to do certain exercises to keep your toe joints flexible. For example, you may need to move and stretch your toe gently with your hands. You can also exercise by picking things up with your toes. Small or soft objects, such as marbles or towels, work best. If your hammer toe becomes painful, you may need to apply an ice pack several times a day. This can help relieve the soreness and swelling. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (also called NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (two brand names: Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (one brand name: Aleve), may be helpful. If your pain and swelling are severe, your doctor may need to give you a steroid injection in the toe joint.
If conservative measures fail to provide relief, or if your hammertoe is in advanced stages with rigidity and a significant amount of pain, surgery may be required. Some patients also require surgery if they have open sores or wounds related to their hammertoe. For patients who also suffer from bunions, a combined procedure may be appropriate, addressing both conditions within the same surgery. Recovery time will vary from patient to patient, depending on the extent of the surgical repair and other conditions that may also be present.
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.