It’s strange that after all these years of blogging, we haven’t focused on one of the most common foot illnesses: hammertoes. When I say hammertoe, pictures of burly men hopping about and cursing after hitting themselves with a hammer comes to mind, but a hammertoe has nothing to do with hammers at all – except for the shape. A hammertoe is an abnormal bend in the middle joint of…you guessed it, your toes.
The characteristic “hammer” shape of the bent toe, usually the second, third, or fourth toe, can identify this condition. There is also a variation of this deformity called a mallet toe, which is a bend in the first joint of the toe (closest to the toenail). Essentially it looks like you have curled up a toe or two permanently. And unfortunately, unless the cause is remedied, it won’t uncurl. There are three main causes of hammertoes: the wrong shoes, sudden trauma, or a muscle imbalance.
Let’s face it, women are more likely to cram their feet into uncomfortable shoes for the sake of fun or fashion, which means women are also more likely than men to develop hammertoes. Just as waves crashing against rock slowly rub the stone down over time, so too will the wrong shoes forces your toes out of alignment, causing unpleasant side effects and potentially permanent damage. Toes that become bunched up inside tight or ill-fitting shoes can still give trouble, even when you switch to better shoes. Corns and calluses formed by constant friction make for unpleasant walking companions. Those with Morton’s Toe (a second toe that is longer than your first toe) need to be especially careful when choosing shoes as they are at increased risk of developing a hammertoe.
It seems obvious to say that direct trauma to a toe may deform it, but it takes a certain type of trauma to create a hammertoe. Those traumas include stubbing, jamming, or breaking your toe. It generally doesn’t just break into the perfect hammertoe shape though. Often these injuries can cause lasting bone deformity or lead to changes in toe flexibility or strength all of which can ultimately lead to a hammertoe.
Technically, all hammertoes are a result of a muscle imbalance. When an outside force (e.g. your shoes) pushes your toes in one direction or another, the muscles and tendons will stretch and contract to adapt to the shape. If they adapt too much and become loose or tight, this imbalance will remain long after you take your shoes off.These muscle imbalances may also be the result of a preexisting condition such as arthritis or be exacerbated by unrelated conditions like diabetes.
In the end, hammertoes are a relatively straightforward condition; things bend and stretch and if they are stretched one way too long it leads to deformity, thus, a hammertoe. Get these fixed as soon as you see them developing! If caught in the early stages, hammertoes may be fixed with protective padding, special taping techniques, custom orthotics, shoe and lifestyle changes, and exercise. If the hammertoe progresses too far, surgery may be the only option. Don’t let it get that far. See your podiatrist today about your hammertoes!