Hammer toes can occur when feet are crammed into shoes so tight that the front of the toes are pushed against the front of the shoes for prolonged periods of time. One or more toes then remain bent with the middle knuckle pointing up, even when shoes are taken off. If the condition is left untreated and tight footwear is continually worn, these bent toes can become so rigid that they can no longer straighten out on their own. While any shoes that are too tight can lead to this condition, high heels seem to be a big culprit since the elevated ankle causes more weight to push the toes forward. This may explain why the condition affects more women than men.
Many people develop hammertoe because they wear shoes that are too tight. Shoes with narrow toe boxes squeeze the toes together, forcing some to bend. This causes the toe muscles to contract. If the toes are forced into this cramped position too often, the muscles may permanently tighten, preventing the toes from extending. Chronic hammertoe can also cause the long bones that connect the toes to the foot, called metatarsals, to move out of position. The misaligned metatarsal bones may pinch a nerve running between them, which can cause a type of nerve irritation called a neuroma.
A soft corn, or heloma molle, may exist in the web space between toes. This is more commonly caused by an exostosis, which is basically an extra growth of bone possibly due to your foot structure. As this outgrowth of excessive bone rubs against other toes, there is friction between the toes and a corn forms for your protection.
Hammer toes may be easily detected through observation. The malformation of the person's toes begin as mild distortions, yet may worsen over time - especially if the factors causing the hammer toes are not eased or removed. If the condition is paid attention to early enough, the person's toes may not be permanently damaged and may be treated without having to receive surgical intervention. If the person's toes remain untreated for too long, however the muscles within the toes might stiffen even more and will require invasive procedures to correct the deformity.
Non Surgical Treatment
Apply a commercial, non-medicated hammer toe pad around the bony prominence of the hammer toe to decrease pressure on the area. Wear a shoe with a deep toe box. If the hammer toe becomes inflamed and painful, apply ice packs several times a day to reduce swelling. Avoid heels more than two inches tall. A loose-fitting pair of shoes can also help protect the foot while reducing pressure on the affected toe, making walking a little easier until a visit to your podiatrist can be arranged. While this treatment will make the hammer toe feel better, it is important to remember that it does not cure the condition. A trip to the podiatrist's office will be necessary to repair the toe to allow for normal foot function. Avoid wearing shoes that are too tight or narrow. Children should have their shoes properly fitted on a regular basis, as their feet can often outgrow their shoes rapidly.
Surgery to straighten the toe may be needed if an ulcer has formed on either the end or the top surface of the toe. Surgery sometimes involves cutting the tendons that support movement in the toe so that the toe can be straightened. Cutting the tendons, however, takes away the ability to bend the very end of the toe. Another type of surgery combines temporary insertion of a pin or rod into the toe and alteration or repair of the tendons, so that the toe is straightened. After surgery, the deformity rarely recurs.
Preventative treatment of hammertoe is directed toward the cause of the deformity. A functional orthotic is a special insert that can be prescribed by your podiatrist to address the abnormal functioning of the foot that causes the hammertoe. Functional orthotics can be thought of as contact lenses for your feet. They correct a number of foot problems that are caused by an abnormally functioning foot. Our feet, much like our eyes, change with time. Functional orthotics slow down or halt this gradual change in the foot. Often when orthotics are used for flexible hammertoes, the toes will overtime straighten out and correct themselves. Calf stretching exercises are also helpful. Calf stretching can help to overcome part of the muscle imbalance that causes the hammertoe.