The name hammertoe comes from the way the tip of the toe hits or hammers on the floor with each step. The primary deformity seen in a hammer toe is found at the PIPJ (proximal interphalangeal joint) which is the first or more proximal of the two joints of the toe. A mallet toe, on the other hand, is a similar deformity but is found in the DIPJ (distal interphalangeal joint). And lastly, claw toes are a deformity where the entire toe grabs and involves the MPJ (metatarsal phalangeal joint) PIPJ and DIPJ. Collectively, these deformities are referred to as hammer toes. Hammer toes can affect one or all of the toes simultaneously.
Hammer toes are most frequently caused by a muscle – tendon imbalance in the foot, and are seen both in adults and children. Foot muscles work in pairs to straighten and bend the toes. If your foot has a biomechanical defect, the muscles tighten and the tendons shorten. Eventually, the toe muscles can?t straighten the toe, even when barefoot. Contributing factors are poor choices in footwear, arthritis, or trauma.
If the toes remain in the hammertoe position for long periods, the tendons on the top of the foot will tighten over time because they are not stretched to their full length. Eventually, the tendons hammertoe shorten enough that the toe stays bent, even when shoes are not being worn. The symptoms of hammertoe include a curling toe, pain or discomfort in the toes and ball of the foot or the front of the leg, especially when toes are stretched downward, thickening of the skin above or below the affected toe with the formation of corns or calluses, difficulty finding shoes that fit well. In its early stages, hammertoe is not obvious. Frequently, hammertoe does not cause any symptoms except for the claw-like toe shape.
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 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
If the toes are still mobile enough that they are able to stretch out and lay flat, the doctor will likely suggest a change of footwear. In addition, she may choose to treat the pain that may result from the condition. The doctor may prescribe pads to ease the pain of any corns and calluses, and medications ranging from ibuprofen to steroid injections for the inflammation and pain. Other options for non-surgical treatments include orthotic devices to help with the tendon and muscle imbalance or splinting to help realign the toe. Splinting devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes but the purpose of each is the same: to stretch the muscles and tendon and flatten the joint to remove the pain and pressure that comes from corns.
If your hammer, claw, or mallet toe gets worse, or if nonsurgical treatment does not help your pain, you may think about surgery. The type of surgery you choose depends on how severe your condition is and whether the toe joint is fixed (has no movement) or flexible (has some movement). A fixed toe joint often requires surgery to be straightened. A flexible toe joint can sometimes be straightened without surgery. Surgery choices include Phalangeal head resection (arthroplasty), in which the surgeon removes part of the toe bone. Joint fusion (arthrodesis), in which the surgeon removes part of the joint, letting the toe bones grow together (fuse). Cutting supporting tissue or moving tendons in the toe joint. How well surgery works depends on what type of surgery you have, how experienced your surgeon is, and how badly your toes are affected.
In addition to wearing proper shoes and socks, walking often and properly can prevent foot injury and pain. The head should be erect, the back straight, and the arms relaxed and swinging freely at the side. Step out on the heel, move forward with the weight on the outside of the foot, and complete the step by pushing off the big toe. Exercises specifically for the toe and feet are easy to perform and help strengthen them and keep them flexible. Helpful exercises include the following. Raise and curl the toes 10 times, holding each position for a count of five. Put a rubber band around both big toes and pull the feet away from each other. Count to five. Repeat 10 times. Pick up a towel with the toes. Repeat five times. Pump the foot up and down to stretch the calf and shin muscles. Perform for 2 or 3 minutes.