A Hammer toes is a deformity of the second, third or fourth toe in which the toe becomes bent at the middle joint; hence, it resembles a hammer. Claw toe and mallet toe are related conditions. While a hammer toe is contracted at the first toe joint, a mallet toe is contracted at the second toe joint, and a claw toe is contracted at both joints. According to the 2012 National Foot Health Assessment conducted by the NPD Group for the Institute for Preventive Foot Health, 3 percent of U.S. adults age 21 and older (about 7 million people) have experienced hammer toe or claw toe. The condition is significantly more prevalent in females than in males.
The constant pressure a woman’s foot receives in high-heeled shoes due to the force of gravity causes their feet to naturally slide down and press on the lowest point of the shoe so they are not able to receive enough space and stretch out. The result is an eventual distortion of the woman’s toes. The deformity comes as a result of the shortening of muscles inside the toes because the toes become used to being in a bent position, prompting the muscles to fail to extend any further and become tightened and curbed. At first, toes may still be stretched out if poor footwear is not being worn, yet if the habit is persistent…the person’s toes will eventually become used to the position they are constantly in and muscle fibers inside them will harden and refuse to stretch.
The symptoms of a hammer toe are usually first noticed when a corn develops on the top of the toe and becomes painful, usually when wearing tight shoes. There may be a bursa under the corn or instead of a corn, depending on the pressure. Most of the symptoms are due to pressure from footwear on the toe. There may be a callus under the metatarsal head at the base of the toe. Initially a hammer toe is usually flexible, but when longstanding it becomes more rigid.
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 hammertoes 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
What will a doctor do? Treat any foot complaints such as corns, calluses by periodically reducing the lesion and applying appropriate pads and dressings. Recommend the silicone toe prop. If an infection is present, then anti-septic dressings, antibiotics and pads to redistribute pressure away from the lesion may be necessary. In the case of a mallet toe, trigger toe or claw toe. If a corn occurs at the end of the toe, a silicone or leather prop may be used to straighten the toe. In a hammertoe deformity, a silicone prop to redistribute pressure away from a corn may be necessary. The doctor may give footwear advice. In severe cases, corrective surgery may be necessary. The doctor may recommend orthosis to correct a mechanical complaint of the foot, such as 3/4 length silicone insoles.
Surgery is the approach that is often necessary to correct hammertoe that fails to respond to nonsurgical management. Surgery is appropriate when the muscles and tendons involved in a hammertoe problem have become so tight that the joints are rigid, misaligned and unmovable. There are a number of surgical techniques for dealing with the complex range of joint, bone, muscle, tendon and ligament abnormalities that define each hammertoe’s make-up. To correct a hammertoe deformity, the surgeon’s goal is to restore the normal alignment of the toe joint, relieving the pressure that led to the hammertoe’s development (this should also relieve the pain, as well). To do this, he or she may remove part of the boney structure that creates a prominence at the top of the joint. Tighten or loosen the muscles, tendons and ligaments around the toe joints. Realign the toe bones by cutting one or more and shifting their position, realigning muscles, tendons and ligaments accordingly. Use screws, wires or plates to hold the joint surfaces together until they heal. Reconstruct a badly damaged joint or replace it with an artificial implant.