Hammer toe is a condition that is characterized by the toe remaining in a permanently bent position, almost like a claw. This can potentially cause a wide variety of problems and can be very painful for anyone that is unfortunate enough to suffer from it. There are two different types of hammer toe, which are:
- Flexible hammer toe, which can often by straightened using manual techniques.
- Rigid hammer toe, which is largely unresponsive to manual techniques and can be extremely difficult to correct.
There are a range of different factors that can lead to the development of hammer toe, but some of the most common include:
- Shoes that don't fit properly. As with many other kinds of toe problems, wearing shoes that don't fit properly is ill advised and can force your toes to bend rather than lay flat to the insole as they should. The toes will also typically rub against the interior of the shoes, causing friction and leading to the development of corns and calluses, which can cause the hammer toe to become worse. Should the heel of the shoe be raised (such as on high heels), the foot is pushed down, causing it to press against the shoe. To compensate, the toes will bend. After a lengthy period, the muscles that are used to flex the toes will no longer be capable of stretching them out fully, even when footwear is not worn.
- Foot injuries that are sustained. Severe impact injuries, such as stubbing your toe can also lead to the development of hammer toe.
- Arthritis and diabetes. These diseases, along with others that are known to cause significant nerve and muscle damage, can cause hammer toe.
- Hereditary. Studies have shown that there is a genetic element to hammertoe and it's a condition that tends to run in the family, although this typically has far less of a bearing than the other potential causes already mentioned.
If you are currently experiencing any of the following problems, it could be possible that you already have hammertoe.
- When putting your shoes on you may notice a sudden pain towards the top of your toe when it's in a bent position.
- Can you see corns (hardened areas of skin) that have developed around the toe joints?
- The toe may be a bright red color and severely swollen.
- The range of motion of the toe may be severely limited, making it difficult, and painful, to move the toe.
- You may feel pain on the ball of your foot, directly below the toe.
In the vast majority of cases, hammer toe is something that can be treated without having to resort to surgery, with the following conservative treatments often used.
- Wearing wider shoes. This a simple but effective way to help improve hammer toe. Shoes that possess more space prevent the toe from pushing up against the shoe quite as much, relieving pain significantly in many cases.
- Customized orthotic device. These devices can provide a cushioned layer over the affected toe, which can provide significant relief should the ends of the toes be seriously affected by the condition.
- Utilizing special pads. These are widely available in many pharmacies and healthcare stores and have proved to be a consistently effective way of treating hammertoe by minimizing the deformity and adding a protective layer to reduce pressure and friction.
- Cutting back serious calluses. Large calluses only serve to make a case of hammer toe worse and by cutting them back, affected toes won't be irritated quite as much.
- Specially designed exercises. If hammer toe is caught early, these exercises have proven to be an effective way of reducing the chances it will progress any further, emphasizing flexibility in the toes.
Should a case of hammertoe fail to respond to any of the conservative treatment methods we have just mentioned, surgery may be considered as an alternative. This occurs most frequently in cases of rigid hammer toe, where surrounding tissues have become tight and have lost all flexibility, severely limiting the range of motion of the toe joint. During surgery, a surgeon will attempt to relieve this "pressure" that surrounding tissues have created, restoring the toe joint back to how it should be.