The name hammertoes 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.
A hammer toe develops because of an abnormal balance of the muscles in the toes. This abnormal balance causes increased pressures on the tendons and joints of the toe, leading to its contracture. Heredity and trauma can also lead to the formation of a hammer toe. Arthritis is another factor, because the balance around the toe in people with arthritis is disrupted. Wearing shoes that are too tight and cause the toes to squeeze can also cause a hammer toe to form.
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.
Most health care professionals can diagnose hammertoe simply by examining your toes and feet. X-rays of the feet are not needed to diagnose hammertoe, but they may be useful to look for signs of some types of arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis) or other disorders that can cause hammertoe. If the deformed toe is very painful, your doctor may recommend that you have a fluid sample withdrawn from the joint with a needle so the fluid can be checked for signs of infection or gout (arthritis from crystal deposits).
Non Surgical Treatment
If the affected 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.
The deformity is corrected in a variety of ways. There are actually a large number of procedures. The simplest procedure would involve a Tenotomy, the cutting of the tendon causing the deformity or a Tendon Lengthening procedure. These procedures are infrequently done, though, as the structural deformity (the arthritis and joint adaptation) is not addressed with these surgeries. Other soft-tissue procedures involve rebalancing the tendons around the joint. There are several techniques to do this, but the most common is probably the Girdlestone-Taylor procedure, which involves hammertoes rerouting the tendons on the bottom of the toe up and over the toe where it sticks up, so that the tendon helps pull the toe downwards into proper alignment.