The absolute agony of stubbing your toe can make you wonder how something as small as a toe and cause so much pain. If you have a hammer toe, or even more painful, hammer toes, the constant pain and discomfort can really put a damper on your daily activities. Find out how what you can do to treat hammer toes and, even better, what you can do to prevent them.
As Podiatrist Dina Stock explains, "The term, hammer toe, is commonly used as a general classification for any condition where the toe muscle weakens, causing digital contracture, and resulting in deformity." This includes hammer toe, claw toe or mallet toe, the differences between them being in which joint the bend occurs.
According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, there are two different types of hammer toes.
Flexible hammer toes – If your smaller toes begin to form a V but you can still move them, you have flexible hammer toe. At this early stage, getting treatment from a medical professional is very important as you may be able to slow the progression of your hammer toe.
Rigid hammer toes – When your toe joint has become permanently misaligned and immobile, you have a rigid hammer toe. This can happen if you've waited too long to get treatment or if you have severe arthritis, and your tendon has become tight.
More common in women than in men, hammer toe can happen because of poor shoe choices, particularly high heels. High heels increase the weight on the forefoot and toes leading to an imbalance of the toe muscles.
The main causes of hammer toes are:
Excessive use of high heels over two inches
Wearing tight shoes that squeeze the toes
Flat feet - As your arch over-flattens, your toes will try to stabilize your foot, causing increased pressure on the joints leading to hammer toes.
High arches - High arches cause imbalances in the different tendons in the toes (extensor and flexor), which can result in hammer toes.
When you're choosing between shoes, makes sure the ones you wear have a wide toe box and a low heel. That way you can prevent a hammer toe from happening.
While the shoes you wear are totally in your control, some of the other causes of hammer toe are not. The foot type you're born with is genetic, and if you have flat feet or high arches, you are predisposed to hammer toe. Also out of your control are the neuromuscular diseases that can contribute to the development of hammer toe.
Cleveland Clinic lists hammer toe symptoms as:
Pain at the abnormal bend of the toe
Corns on the top of the joint
Redness and swelling at the joint contracture
Restricted or painful motion of the toe joint
Pain in the ball of the foot at the base of the affected toe joint
Placing over-the-counter, non-medicated hammer toe pads on the affected toe
Icing your toes
Doing tendon and muscle stretching and strengthening exercises like picking up a towel with your toes
Your doctor will likely take an x-ray of your toe to determine the severity of your hammer toe. That's when you can take on some more serious treatment like:
Padding and taping – Like the hammer toe pads, a podiatrist's method of padding will bring comfort to the area and relieve pressure. Taping will keep the foot in its proper alignment.
Anti-inflammatory drugs or cortisone shots – If you have acute pain and severe inflammation, your physician might recommend this treatment plan.
Insoles – Most likely your podiatrist or physician will recommend the use of hammer toe orthotics or insoles. Because people with flat feet and high arches are more likely to develop hammer toe, adding firm arch support insoles that correct their biomechanical irregularities can help a great deal.
Surgery – While surgery is a last resort for fixing hammer toe, it is the best way to permanently fix it. Your surgeon will remove the bony growth and restore the toe joint to its normal alignment.
If you are suffering from hammer toe, treating the corn or callus that may have developed on the top of your toe can help alleviate your discomfort. Podiatrist Georgeanne Botek recommends you "treat the corn by using a file or pumice stone to reduce its size after a warm bath, then apply emollients to keep the area softened and pliable."
While sensible shoes can go a long way, they won't correct the underlying biomechanical irregularities that cause hammer toe. As Dr. Botek says, "ensuring your shoes have good arch support can slow the progression of the condition as well."
You'll want to add firm, flexible insoles to your footwear to keep your arches supported so your toes aren't doing all the work. Doing everything you can to prevent your hammer toe from becoming more severe can keep your feet feeling better for the long-term, and help you avoid surgery.
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