Hammer, claw, and mallet toes are toes that do not have the right shape. They may look odd or may hurt, or both. Tight shoes are the most common cause of these toe problems. A Hammertoes is a toe that bends down toward the floor at the middle toe joint. It usually happens in the second toe. This causes the middle toe joint to rise up. Hammer toes often occur with bunions. Claw toe often happens in the four smaller toes at the same time. The toes bend up at the joints where the toes and the foot meet. They bend down at both the middle joints and at the joints nearest the tip of the toes. This causes the toes to curl down toward the floor. A mallet toe often happens to the second toe, but it may happen in the other toes as well. The toe bends down at the joint closest to the tip of the toe.
Shoes that narrow toward the toe may make your forefoot look smaller. But they also push the smaller toes into a flexed (bent) position. The toes rub against the shoe, leading to the formation of corns and calluses, which further aggravate the condition. A higher heel forces the foot down and squishes the toes against the shoe, increasing the pressure and the bend in the toe. Eventually, the toe muscles become unable to straighten the toe, even when there is no confining shoe.
The symptoms of hammertoe are progressive, meaning that they get worse over time. Hammertoe causes the middle joint on the second, third, fourth, or fifth toes to bend. The affected toe may be painful or irritated, especially when you wear shoes. Areas of thickened skin (corns) may develop between, on top of, or at the end of your toes. Thickened skin (calluses) may also appear on the bottom of your toe or the ball of your foot. It may be difficult to find a pair of shoes that is comfortable to wear.
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
Hammertoes that are not painful (asymptomatic) and still flexible may not require treatment. In mild cases, open-toed, low-heeled, or wider shoes and foam or moleskin pads can provide symptomatic relief by reducing pressure. Taping (strapping) the affected toe can help to reduce deformity and pain. Physical therapy to instruct patients in exercises that passively stretch tight structures and strengthen weak foot intrinsic muscles is also helpful with mild cases. Periodic trimming (debridement) of corns (clavi, helomata) by a podiatrist can provide temporary relief. Corticosteroid injections are often very effective in reducing pain.
In advanced cases in which the toe has become stiff and permanently bent, the toe can be straightened with surgery. One type of surgery involves removing a small section of the toe bone to allow the toe to lie flat. Surgery for hammertoe usually is classified as a cosmetic procedure. Cosmetic foot surgeries sometimes result in complications such as pain or numbness, so it's better to treat the problem with a shoe that fits properly.