There are two main types of Hammer toe. Hammertoes can be flexible, which means that you can still move the toe a bit – these are easier to treat with stretching, wider shoes and in some cases, toe splints. Rigid hammertoes occur when the foot condition has persisted for so long without treatment that the tendons become too rigid to be stretched back to normal. Rigid hammertoes are more common in people with arthritis. This foot condition usually needs to be treated with surgery.
While ill-fitting shoes may contribute to a hammertoe, shoes don’t actually cause it, Hammertoes occur by the pull and stretch of the tendon. One tendon gets a more mechanical advantage over the other and allows the deformity to occur. Not surprisingly, wearing shoes that are too tight can make a hammertoe worse. If you’re fond of narrow, pointy-toed shoes or high-heeled pumps, keep in mind you’re squeezing those toes and tendons, which may aggravate hammertoes.
A hammertoe may be present but not always painful unless irritated by shoes. One may have enlarged toe joints with some thickened skin and no redness or swelling. However, if shoes create pressure on the joint, the pain will usually range from pinching and squeezing to sharp and burning. In long standing conditions, the dislocated joints can cause the pain of arthritis.
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
If the affected Hammer toe toe is still flexible, you may be able to treat it by taping or splinting the toe to hold it straight. Your family doctor can show you how to do this. You may also try corrective footwear, corn pads and other devices to reduce pain. You may need to do certain exercises to keep your toe joints flexible. For example, you may need to move and stretch your toe gently with your hands. You can also exercise by picking things up with your toes. Small or soft objects, such as marbles or towels, work best. If your hammer toe becomes painful, you may need to apply an ice pack several times a day. This can help relieve the soreness and swelling. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (also called NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (two brand names: Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (one brand name: Aleve), may be helpful. If your pain and swelling are severe, your doctor may need to give you a steroid injection in the toe joint.
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.