There are two main types of Hammer toe. Hammertoes can be flexible, which means that you can still move the toe a bit - these are easier to treat with stretching, wider shoes and in some cases, toe splints. Rigid hammertoes occur when the foot condition has persisted for so long without treatment that the tendons become too rigid to be stretched back to normal. Rigid hammertoes are more common in people with arthritis. This foot condition usually needs to be treated with surgery.
Essentially, hammertoes are caused by an abnormal interworking of the bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons that comprise your feet. When muscles fail to work in a balanced manner, the toe joints can bend to form the hammertoe shape. If they remain in this position for an extended period, the muscles and tendons supporting them tighten and remain in that position. A common factor in development of hammertoe is wearing shoes that squeeze the toes or high heels that jam the toes into the front of the shoe. Most likely due to these factors, hammertoe occurs much more frequently in women than in men.
Well-developed hammertoes are distinctive due to the abnormal bent shape of the toe. However, there are many other common symptoms. Some symptoms may be present before the toe becomes overly bent or fixed in the contracted position. Often, before the toe becomes permanently contracted, there will be pain or irritation over the top of the toe, particularly over the joint. The symptoms are pronounced while wearing shoes due to the top of the toe rubbing against the upper portion of the shoe. Often, there is a significant amount of friction between the toe and the shoe or between the toe and the toes on either side of it. The corns may be soft or hard, depending on their location and age. The affected toe may also appear red with irritated skin. In more severe cases, blisters or open sores may form. Those with diabetes should take extra care if they develop any of these symptoms, as they could lead to further complications.
Although hammertoes are readily apparent, to arrive at a diagnosis the foot and ankle surgeon will obtain a thorough history of your symptoms and examine your foot. During the physical examination, the doctor may attempt to reproduce your symptoms by manipulating your foot and will study the contractures of the toes. In addition, the foot and ankle surgeon may take x-rays to determine the degree of the deformities and assess any changes that may have occurred.
Non Surgical Treatment
If the affected toe is still flexible, you may be able to treat it by taping or splinting the toe to hold it straight. Your family doctor can show you how to do this. You may also try corrective footwear, corn pads hammertoe and other devices to reduce pain. You may need to do certain exercises to keep your toe joints flexible. For example, you may need to move and stretch your toe gently with your hands. You can also exercise by picking things up with your toes. Small or soft objects, such as marbles or towels, work best. If your hammer toe becomes painful, you may need to apply an ice pack several times a day. This can help relieve the soreness and swelling. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (also called NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (two brand names: Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (one brand name: Aleve), may be helpful. If your pain and swelling are severe, your doctor may need to give you a steroid injection in the toe joint.
Sometimes when the joints are removed the two bones become one as they are fused in a straightened position. Many times one toe will be longer than another and a piece of bone is removed to bring the toes in a more normal length in relation to each other. Sometimes tendons will be lengthened, or soft tissue around the joints will be cut or rebalanced to fix the deformity. Angular corrections may also be needed. The surgeon may place fixation in your foot as it heals which may include a pin, or wires.