Hammertoe is a common deformity in the second, third, or fourth toe.

Hammertoe results from an abnormal bend in the middle joint, which makes the end of the toe bend downward and look like a hammer. Hammertoes usually start out small and mild, but they tend to progress over time until they become very painful. Fortunately, they are treatable and preventable. Understanding the causes, risk factors, and symptoms of hammertoe will help you prevent the issue or seek treatment before it becomes too severe.

Hammertoe Causes

One of the most common causes of hammertoe is improperly-fitting shoes. Narrow shoes can push your toes into a bent position, which can cause a permanent change in the structure of your foot over time. This is especially common in people who wear high heels or other tight shoes every day. Improperly-fitting footwear can also cause your toes to rub against your shoes, leading to corns and calluses that cause even more foot pain. Another common cause of hammertoe is a muscle imbalance. This occurs when a muscle in the foot weakens and prevents one of the toes from fully straightening out. There are a number of muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the foot that all work together, so damage or weakness in one of them can cause harm to your feet. The risk of developing a hammertoe increases with age. Certain diseases, such as arthritis and diabetes, can increase the risk of hammertoe as well. Some people are genetically predisposed to hammertoe. For example, if their second toe is longer than the first toe, they may be at an increased risk of developing a hammertoe.

Hammertoe Symptoms

The most noticeable sign of hammertoe is a toe that bends downward and looks like a hammer. In most cases, hammertoe causes some degree of pain in the affected toe, which may worsen when moving the feet or wearing shoes. Corns and calluses on the middle joint of the affected toe are common as well, especially when the hammertoe is caused by ill-fitting footwear. Sometimes, people with hammertoe experience swelling, redness, or a burning feeling in the foot. It may be difficult or impossible to straighten out the toe. In severe cases, open sores may develop on the affected toe.

A hammertoe will not go away on its own, and it will likely get worse over time. If you think you may have a hammertoe, you should visit your doctor to discuss your treatment options. Your doctor may be able to diagnose your hammertoe just by inspecting your foot, but you may need an X-ray to reveal the degree of the deformity. There are a variety of treatments for hammertoe, but the best option for you depends on the cause and severity of the deformity. Your doctor will recommend that you change your footwear and avoid high heels and other shoes with pointed toes. If you have a muscle or tendon imbalance, your doctor may prescribe a custom orthotic device to compensate. If you have corns or calluses, you can use a prescribed pad to shield your toes from irritation. Ibuprofen and other NSAID medicines can help with pain and inflammation. Your doctor may also recommend toe exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles in your feet. In severe cases where the hammertoe is too rigid to move, surgery may be necessary. During the procedure, your doctor may release the tendon that’s keeping your toe bent or remove a small piece of bone to straighten out the toe.

If you’re predisposed to developing a hammertoe, there are steps you can take to prevent the problem from occurring. The best thing you can do to correct improper biomechanics caused by genetic factors, is to wear custom corrective inserts.

You should also wear comfortable, properly-fitting shoes with adequate toe room. Avoid shoes that have narrow or pointed toes, and choose footwear with low heels or no heels whenever possible. Laced or strapped shoes that allow for adjustments are ideal, too.

To make sure you select shoes that fit right, buy your shoes at the end of the day instead of in the morning. Your feet swell up throughout the day, so purchasing a new pair of shoes when your feet are swollen will ensure that they won’t be too tight. You should also have your feet measured before buying new shoes, especially if it’s been a long time since you’ve checked your size. Your shoe size can change as you age, so you should always keep up-to-date on your current size.

Sign up for insider tips and health care news

    Schedule An Appointment