Hammer toes are toes that are abnormally bent into a “claw-like” shape, similar to the claw end of a hammer. The hammer toe deformity can occur in any toe except the big toe. Often, hammer toes are topped by corns that form when the curved part of the toe is pressed against the interior surfaces of shoes.
Hammer toes form when the ligaments and tendons that support the toe become tight and pull the toe downward and inward, causing the toe joint to become deformed. Initially, the joint remains flexible, which makes treating the hammer toe easier and more straightforward. But without prompt treatment, the joint and the connective tissues that support it can become very stiff, and treatment can become more complex. Eventually, the joint may become immobilized and arthritic. Hammer toes are more common among people with specific foot shapes and among people who wear shoes that are tight or crowded in the toe area, including high-heeled shoes that force the toes downward, causing crowding. The deformity can also occur more often in men and women with circulatory or nervous system disorders.
In their early stages when the joint and connective tissues are still very flexible, hammer toes may be treated by switching to shoe styles that offer more room in the toe area and by avoiding high heels. Custom orthotics or special padding can also be very helpful in supporting the toe in its proper position and in relieving pressure on the joint. In some cases, splints may be recommended to help the joint resume and maintain a normal position, and stretching exercises can improve flexibility and prevent the joint from becoming stiff and sore. In a few cases when these methods don’t relieve painful symptoms, surgery may be needed to reposition the tendons and ligaments, or less commonly, to “fuse” the joint to prevent painful symptoms.
One of the best ways to prevent hammer toe formation is to wear shoes that offer plenty of room in the toe area so crowding is prevented. It’s also very important to see a podiatrist at the first sign of any unnatural toe curvature or deformity so the problem can be treated in its earliest stages, while the joint is still flexible and before arthritis has a chance to develop.