Hammer toe is a painful deformity wherein a toe bends unnaturally and becomes clawlike. This happens because the tendons of the toe contract abnormally, forcing the toe to bend downward and the middle joint of the toe to protrude upward. Although any toe may be affected, hammer toe usually affects the second toe. The toe assumes a clawlike position and cannot be straightened out.
Symptoms of Hammer Toe
- An uncomfortable clawlike deformity of a toe, usually the second toe next to the big toe
- Corn formation on the top of a toe and a callus on the sole of the foot
- Inflammation, redness or a burning sensation
- In severe cases, open sores may appear.
What Causes Hammer Toe?
It’s thought that hammer toe may develop from wearing shoes that are too narrow or too short. This probably explains why women are far more prone to the condition than men: almost 9 out of 10 women wear shoes that are too small. Another cause is diabetes mellitus, which produces nerve damage in the feet that may lead to hammer toe.
What If You Do Nothing?
As long as hammer toe causes no pain or any change in your walking or running gait, it isn’t harmful and doesn't require treatment. Seek medical attention if the toe becomes painful and you have difficulty walking. The condition is usually irreversible, but often its progression can be slowed or halted. Rheumatoid arthritis and pressure from a bunion are some of the risk factors for hammer toe.
Home Remedies for Hammer Toe
- Pad it. Mild cases of hammer toe can be treated with corn pads or felt pads available in the pharmacy. Toe caps, the small, padded sleeves that fit around the tip of the toe, may relieve hammer toe pain.
- Change your shoes. Wear wide shoes with resilient soles. Avoid shoes with pointed toes.
- Exercise. Certain exercises such as moving and stretching your toe gently with your hands and picking small or soft objects such as marbles or towels can keep your toe joints flexible. Also, while you are watching television or reading, you can also put a towel flat under your feet and use your toes to crumple it. This simple exercise can stretch and strengthen your muscles.
- Use ice. If your hammer toe becomes painful, applying an ice pack several times a day can help relieve the soreness and swelling.
- Take medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (also called NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen may be helpful in minimizing pain and inflammation.
- Use orthotic devices. Place a custom orthotic device in your shoe. This will help control the muscle/tendon imbalance.
The key to prevention is to wear shoes that fit you properly and provide plenty of room for your toes. Here’s how to get the right fit.
- Have your feet properly measured. The best way to do this is to get someone to draw the outline of your foot while you stand barefoot with your full weight on it, then measure the outline at the widest point.
- Measure the soles of your shoes. Ideally, they should be as wide as your feet, but certainly no more than half an inch narrower. Length matters, too, of course: your shoes should be half an inch longer than your longest toe.
Few people realize that their feet grow over the years: actually, the heel stays the same, but the front of the foot becomes wider and longer. The result: most women wear shoes that fit at the heel but are much too narrow in the front.
- Buy shoes that fit the longer foot. For two out of three people, one foot is significantly bigger than the other. Have both feet measured whenever you buy shoes. Have your feet measured while you're standing, and buy shoes that fit the larger foot. Shop at the end of the day, when foot swelling is greatest. No shoe should feel tight.
- Don't go by numbers. You may think of yourself as a size 8B, but size varies from shoe to shoe. There is no standardization, so pick the shoes that fit best.
- Limit high-heel use. These shoes increase pressure on the front of the foot by at least 50 percent, so wear them only for special occasions. Flat shoes are more comfortable than high heels, but they, too, can be hard on your feet, especially if they are thin-soled.
- Change your shoes. If your shoes are too short or too narrow, get another pair. This is especially important for children going through periods of rapid growth. The toe area should be high enough so that it doesn't rub against the top of your toesespecially if hammer toes have started to develop.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician or podiatrist if you experience continuing pain because of a hammer toe or if a hammer toe interferes with your everyday activities.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your physician will examine the affected toe. X-rays may be taken. Your physician may splint the toe and give you special exercises to perform. In severe cases surgery may be recommended to correct the problem.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media