The term, Hammer toes is used to describe the collective physical deformity of the second, third and fourth toe on a person's foot when they are permanently bent at one or two of their joints, often times at their middle joints or, 'proximal interphalangeal,' joints. The condition is also referred to as, 'contracted toes,' and earned its name for the resulting bowed appearance of the toes that made them appear similar to hammers. The distortion of the usual contour of the person's toes is usually a result of wearing shoes that are too short or narrow and apply consistent pressure to the toes, forcing them to be pushed together and lie obliquely. The situation is particularly true in the case of shoes that are designed to narrow towards the toe box.
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.
For some people, a hammer toe is nothing more than an unsightly deformity that detracts from the appearance of the foot. However, discomfort may develop if a corn or callus develops on the end or top of the toe. If pressure and friction continue on the end or top of the toe, a painful ulcer may develop. Discomfort or pain can lead to difficulty walking.
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
Your doctor may prescribe some toe exercises that you can do at home to stretch and strengthen the muscles. For example, you can gently stretch the toes manually. You can use your toes to pick things up off the floor. While you watch television or read, you can put a towel flat under your feet and use your toes to crumple it. Finally, your doctor may recommend that you use commercially available straps, cushions or nonmedicated corn pads to relieve symptoms. If you have diabetes, poor circulation or a lack of feeling in your feet, talk to your doctor before attempting any self-treatment.
Curative treatment of hammertoes varies depending upon the severity of the deformity. When the hammertoe is flexible, a simple tendon release in the toe works well. The recovery is rapid often requiring nothing more that a single stitch and a Band-Aid. Of course if several toes are done at the same time, the recovery make take a bit longer.
Plainly put, most toe deformities are caused by footwear. If you wish to avoid bunions or hammertoes, or works towards reversing them, please choose your footwear that has a low heel, and is wide enough in the toebox to spread you toes. Your podiatrist or therapist can help with the manipulation exercises. Bunion splints are available.