Hammertoes: Cramped and Stuck Toes

Robert G. Parker
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Dr. Parker is a podiatrist and surgeon in Houston, TX who has been helping patients for more than 40 years.

HammertoesWhen things that are meant to be straight end up bent, they might be unable to fulfill their purpose and sometimes they don’t even fit where they are supposed to. Imagine if a pipe under your sink accidentally gets bumped and bent out of shape. It probably won’t fit in its place well—and the pipe may leak and not function correctly! Hammertoes create a similar issue with your digits, including making it uncomfortable to fit into shoes and walk around.

Toes Forming Hammers

Hammertoes are digits that have gotten stuck in a bent position at the middle joint. All of your toes have pairs of tendons that control them and keep them straight. One-half of the pair bends an individual toe; the other half straightens it out again. Together, these keep your digits balanced and able to do their jobs. When one of the tendons attached to a toe becomes abnormally tightened, it forces the digit to bend—and its other half isn’t able to balance it out. This is how a hammertoe develops.

Many different underlying issues can cause this tendon imbalance. Usually faulty biomechanics over years of wear and tear put pressure on the tendons until they tighten. Other foot or ankle conditions that change the way the foot works slightly, like bunions, can also contribute to the deformity. Even your shoe choices may have an effect. Footwear that is too cramped or that forces pressure onto the ball of the foot, like high heels, may keep the small toes in a bent position until they get stuck there.

Symptoms to Expect

Hammertoes are usually obvious by sight. They have a distinct appearance: one or more of the four small toes on your foot bends sharply at the middle joint. Usually the second digit, the one closest to your big toe, is affected. This can be quite uncomfortable for the toe, and make it difficult for you to wear normal shoes. Calluses and corns where the skin rubs against your footwear are common. Early on, the digit is still flexible. You can straighten it out with your hands. The condition is progressive, though, and the toe will stiffen with time, eventually becoming fixed in place. This can make it quite painful to walk around.

Unbending the Toes

Because the condition is progressive, the sooner you take care of your hammertoes, the better it is for your feet. They will not improve on their own. If you wait too long, the toe may grow completely stuck and not respond to conservative care. Dr. Robert Parker and our staff at Parker Foot & Ankle will examine your digit and investigate any underlying conditions that may have contributed to the problem. We may also use tests and diagnostic images to evaluate the severity of the condition and check for complications. Then we’ll begin your treatment.

Most hammertoes do respond to noninvasive care, particularly if it’s caught and dealt with early on. Stretching the toe to relax the tightened tendon will be key. You’ll need to manually straighten out the bent toe regularly. You’ll also perform strengthening exercises that may help correct the tendon imbalance. Wearing pads to protect your digits can help with the discomfort and minimize corns or calluses. Straps or splints may keep your toe straight for you.

You might need to change your shoes, too. Make sure you wear models that have wide, deep toe boxes that are long enough for all your toes. Avoid styles like high heels that put pressure on the ball of the foot or are likely to cramp your digits. If your feet aren’t responding to these treatments, you might need surgery to correct the problem.

No one wants to stop wearing their favorite shoes or participating in their favorite activities because of one small toe. Don’t let your bent digits get stuck. Dr. Robert Parker and our whole team at Parker Foot & Ankle can help eliminate your hammertoes. Just call (281) 497-2850 to make an appointment with our Houston office.