A hammer toe — also called a mallet toe — is a deformity that causes one or more toes to bend downward, like a hammer, instead of lying flat. Hammer toes usually form on the second, third, fourth, or fifth toe.
Without treatment and proper foot care, hammer toes generally worsen with time. Even though mild hammer toes are usually nothing more than an aesthetic issue, they can develop to the point where they cause pain and other complications when you try to walk, run, or dance.
At Foot and Ankle Care of Passaic, our expert podiatrist Sean Rosenblum, DPM provides foot care and hammer toe treatment here at Foot and Ankle Care of Passaic in Lodi, New Jersey. Here’s what he wants you to know about why hammer toes develop and how to keep them from worsening.
Tight ligaments cause hammer toes
Most hammer toes are due to an imbalance in the ligaments, muscles, and tendons that bend your toe and keep it straight. When one of these structures weakens, it loses its ability to bend or straighten the toe. When the toe remains bent long enough, the muscles tighten, and the toe won’t straighten anymore.
Hammer toes can make you feel embarrassed to bare your feet in sandals or open-toe shoes. However, they’re more than a cosmetic issue. A hammer toe deformity can cause muscle imbalances, chronic stress on other areas of your feet and toes, and make it hard to find shoes that fit comfortably.
Why you have hammer toe
In some cases, hammer toe occurs after a traumatic toe injury like a toe fracture that damages your ligaments and muscles, too. More often, though, the condition develops over time as a result of other factors. Circumstances that make you more susceptible to hammer toe include:
Poorly fitting shoes
Shoe heels that are more than two inches high raise your risk of hammer toes by increasing weight on the forefoot and toes. The extra weight then leads to an imbalance of toe muscles. Any shoes that are narrow and tight through the toe box with little to no arch support can force your toes into a flexed, or hammered, position.
If you persist in wearing high heels or tight shoe boxes, you can permanently force your toes into a bent position. That means your toes remain bent downward even when you’re not wearing shoes. Women are more likely to develop hammer toes than men, most likely because they tend to wear shoes with smaller toe boxes and higher heels.
Flat, flexible feet increase your risk of hammer toes because your foot tries to stabilize itself against a flattening arch. Feet with high arches or a second toe that’s longer than your big toe may also make you more likely to develop this deformity.
Medical or physical conditions
Certain diseases — including arthritis, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, alcoholism, polio, spinal cord tumors, or stroke — increase your risk of hammer toes. If you have bunions, they can push your neighboring toe out of place and make you more susceptible to hammer toes.
How to prevent hammer toes
If you’ve noticed that your relatives have hammer toes and you either don’t yet have it, or want to reverse a mild hammer toe, take the following precautions:
- Limit your use of high heels
- Limit your use of shoes with narrow toe boxes
- Wear orthotic shoe inserts that offset the effects of low or high arches
- Stretch and bend your toes regularly to keep them flexible
- Seek treatment for bunions or any type of toe trauma
- Follow recommendations for a joint disease, such as arthritis
How to treat hammer toes
Seek treatment as early as possible to prevent or improve hammer toes. In its earliest stages, you can treat hammer toe with footwear modifications and appropriate exercises.
Exercising your toes and stretching your foot muscles can often be an effective way to stretch out tight muscles, tendons, and ligaments. We might also recommend custom orthotics, a padded boot, or splint to provide support that offsets the abnormal foot structure.
If your hammer toes are diagnosed in their advanced stages, the affected toe(s) may become rigid. Surgery may be necessary to loosen the ligaments, tendons, or muscles. We may recommend surgical techniques like tendon transfers, bone fusion, or joint sections.
Give your hammer toes the care they need to lie flat and function without pain again. Contact us with our online form or by phone at 973-218-5720 for a foot care consultation and hammer toe treatment today.