The term, Hammer toe, is commonly used as a general classification for any condition where the toe muscle weakens, causing digital contracture, and resulting in deformity, a digital contracture like this can actually be a hammertoe, claw toe or mallet toe, depending on which joints in the toe are contracted. Clawtoes are bent at the middle and end joints, while hammertoes are bent at the middle joint only. When it?s mallet toe, the joint at the end of the toe buckles. The skin near the toenail tip develops a painful corn that can eventually result in an ulcer. Doctors further categorize all forms of hammertoe based on whether the affected toe is flexible, semi-rigid or rigid. The more rigid the toe, the more pain it will cause.
If a foot is flat (pes planus, pronated), the flexor muscles on the bottom of the foot can overpower the others because a flatfoot is longer than a foot with a normal arch. When the foot flattens and lengthens, greater than normal tension is exerted on the flexor muscles in the toes. The toes are not strong enough to resist this tension and they may be overpowered, resulting in a contracture of the toe, or a bending down of the toe at the first toe joint (the proximal interphalangeal joint) which results in a hammertoe. If a foot has a high arch (pes cavus, supinated), the extensor muscles on the top of the foot can overpower the muscles on the bottom of the foot because the high arch weakens the flexor muscles. This allows the extensor muscles to exert greater than normal tension on the toes. The toes are not strong enough to resist hammertoe this tension and they may be overpowered, resulting in a contracture of the toe, or a bending down of the toe at the first toe joint (the proximal interphalangeal joint) which results in a hammertoe.
Common reasons patients seek treatment for toe problems are toe pain on the knuckle. Thick toe calluses. Interference with walking/activities. Difficulty fitting shoes. Worsening toe deformity. Pain at the ball of the foot. Unsightly appearance. Toe deformities (contractures) come in varying degrees of severity, from slight to severe. The can be present in conjunction with a bunion, and develop onto a severe disfiguring foot deformity. Advanced cases, the toe can dislocate on top of the foot. Depending on your overall health, symptoms and severity of the hammer toe, the condition may be treated conservatively and/or with surgery.
First push up on the bottom of the metatarsal head associated with the affected toe and see if the toe straightens out. If it does, then an orthotic could correct the problem, usually with a metatarsal pad. If the toe does not straighten out when the metatarsal head is pushed up, then that indicates that contracture in the capsule and ligaments (capsule contracts because the joint was in the wrong position for too long) of the MTP joint has set in and surgery is required. Orthotics are generally required post-surgically.
Non Surgical Treatment
A number of approaches can be undertaken to the manage a hammer toe. It is important that any footwear advice is followed. The correct amount of space in the toe box will allow room for the toes to function without excessive pressure. If a corn is present, this will need to be treated. If the toe is still flexible, it may be possible to use splints or tape to try and correct the toe. Without correct fitting footwear, this is often unsuccessful. Padding is often used to get pressure off the toe to help the symptoms. If conservative treatment is unsuccessful at helping the symptoms, surgery is often a good option.
Sometimes surgery can not be avoided. If needed, the surgery chosen is decided by whether we are dealing with a flexible or rigid hammer toe. If the surgery is on a flexible hammer toe, it is performed on soft tissue structures like the tendon and or capsule of the flexor hammer toe. Rigid hammer toes need bone surgeries into the joint of the toe to repair it. This bone surgery is called an arthroplasty.