The smallest four toes of each foot have three bony segments connected by two joints. Hammertoe is a deformity in which one or more of the small toes develops a bend at the joint between the first and second segments. The tip of the toe turns downward, making it look like a hammer or claw. The second toe is the one most often affected. Hammer toes may be more likely to occur when the second toe is longer than the first toe or when the arch of the foot is flat.
Hammertoes are a contracture of the toes as a result of a muscle imbalance between the tendons on the top of the toes (extensor tendons) and the tendons on the bottom of the toes (flexor tendons). If there is an imbalance in the foot muscles that stabilize the toe, the smaller muscles can be overpowered by the larger flexor and extensor muscles.
Symptoms may include pain in the affected toe or toes when you wear shoes, making it hard or painful to walk. A corn or callus on the top of the joint caused by rubbing against the shoe. Swelling and redness of the skin over the joint. Trouble finding comfortable shoes.
The exam may reveal a toe in which the near bone of the toe (proximal phalanx) is angled upward and the middle bone of the toe points in the opposite direction (plantar flexed). Toes may hammertoes appear crooked or rotated. The involved joint may be painful when moved, or stiff. There may be areas of thickened skin (corns or calluses) on top of or between the toes, a callus may also be observed at the tip of the affected toe beneath the toenail. An attempt to passively correct the deformity will help elucidate the best treatment option as the examiner determines whether the toe is still flexible or not. It is advisable to assess palpable pulses, since their presence is associated with a good prognosis for healing after surgery. X-rays will demonstrate the contractures of the involved joints, as well as possible arthritic changes and bone enlargements (exostoses, spurs). X-rays of the involved foot are usually performed in a weight-bearing position.
Non Surgical Treatment
Many people start by treating the problem themselves when they have a painful corn or callus. They try to remove the corn by cutting it off or by applying strong acids, and they try to cushion the toe by applying cushioned pads. Because these treatments can be difficult to perform by oneself (and should never be done by oneself when the patient is diabetic or circulation is poor), and because these treatments only treat the symptom, not the structural deformity that causes their symptom, these treatments can often provide only limited success, and often any success is for only short periods of time. Changes in shoe choices and various types of paddings and other appliances may help, too. For longer-lasting help, we must examine the cause of the deformity. The reason for knowing the cause is that the type of treatment will vary, depending upon the cause of the complaint. Orthotics help control the causes of certain types of contracted toes, (those caused by flexor stabilization, for example), but not other types.
In advanced cases in which the toe has become stiff and permanently bent, the toe can be straightened with surgery. One type of surgery involves removing a small section of the toe bone to allow the toe to lie flat. Surgery for hammertoe usually is classified as a cosmetic procedure. Cosmetic foot surgeries sometimes result in complications such as pain or numbness, so it's better to treat the problem with a shoe that fits properly.