Hammer toes is a condition which causes one or more of the smaller toes to become bent upwards. The toe can be straightened but if ignored may become a permanent deformity. Each of the 4 smaller toes consist of 3 bones called phalanges, forming two interphalangeal joints. The toe bends at the proximal or first interphalangeal joint. Initially it can be straightened, but if left untreated, this can become a permanent deformity.
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.
Symptoms of a hammertoe are usually first noticed as a corn on the top of the toe or at the tip which produces pain with walking or wearing tight shoes. Most people feel a corn is due to a skin problem on their toes, which in fact, it is protecting the underlying bone deformity. A corn on the toe is sometimes referred to as a heloma dura or heloma durum, meaning hard corn. This is most common at the level of the affected joint due to continuous friction of the deformity against your shoes.
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
The most common treatment is to wear more comfortable shoes. When choosing a shoe, make sure the toe area is high and broad and has enough room for hammer toes. If there is chronic pain, surgery may be needed to correct a malalignment. Surgical treatments are aimed at loosening up the contracted toe joints to allow them to align properly. Other types of treatment are products designed to relieve hammer toes, such as hammer toe crests and hammer toe splints. These devices will help hold down the hammer toe and provide relief to the forefoot. Gel toe shields and gel toe caps can also be used. Gel toe shields and toe caps will help eliminate friction between the shoe and the toe, while providing comfort and lubrication.
The deformity is corrected in a variety of ways. There are actually a large number of procedures. The simplest procedure would involve a Tenotomy, the cutting of the tendon causing the deformity or a Tendon Lengthening procedure. These procedures are infrequently done, though, as the structural deformity (the arthritis and joint adaptation) is not addressed with these surgeries. Other soft-tissue procedures involve rebalancing the tendons around the joint. There are several techniques to do this, but the most common is probably the Girdlestone-Taylor procedure, which involves rerouting the tendons on the bottom of the toe up and over the toe where it sticks up, so that the tendon helps pull the toe downwards into proper alignment.
Walking barefoot increases the risk for injury and infection. Being on your feet throughout the day can cause them to swell, this is the best time to buy shoes to get a better fit. Do not buy shoes that feel tight. Do not buy shoes that ride up and down your heel as you walk. The ball of your foot should fit into the widest part of the shoe. Remember, the higher the heel the less safe the shoe will be. Avoid shoes with pointed or narrow toes. If the shoes hurt, do not wear them. If you start noticing the beginning signs of hammer toes, you may still be able to prevent the tendons from tightening by soaking your feet every day in warm water, wearing toe friendly shoes, and performing foot exercises such as stretching your toes and ankles. A simple exercise such as placing a small towel on the floor and then picking it up using only your toes can help to restore the flexibility of tendons.