Striking A Balance With Hammertoes

What Hammertoes Look Like

Success in life depends partly on keeping things in balance: work vs. family responsibilities, seriousness vs. fun, even stocks vs. bonds! The ability of your toes to function depends on balance, too—between opposing sets of muscles. Muscles only pull, not push, so certain ones curl your toes up and others pull them back straight. When these are not in balance, you could end up with a deformity called hammertoes.

When the muscles and tendons underneath your toe are too tight, and the ones on top are too stretched out, the toe will bend up at the middle joint, while the tip of the toe rests down on your shoes. (A mallet toe is similar, except the middle joint is straight but the one by the tip is bent.)

The condition is named for its resemblance to a hammer: that upside-down V shape resembles the joint between the steel head and handle of the useful tool. The name also reflects the way the tip of your toe pounds on the insole of your shoe, rather than letting your weight roll forward along the whole toe as you walk.

What Hammertoes Feel Like

Two problems can result: a corn can form on top of the V where it rubs against your shoes, and a callous can form at the tip of your toe. Both can lead to pain at the point of irritation. Your toes may also cramp up painfully when you are walking or even at rest because of tight muscles.

At first you may be able to straighten your toes when you are not wearing shoes. If you don’t treat the condition, however, it will become worse. In the latter stages, if the deformity becomes rigid, you can’t even pull your toes straight with your fingers anymore.

Causes of Bent-Up Toes

A muscle imbalance is usually the reason your toes don’t lie straight, but shoes can complicate the issue. When your toes are forced into an area that is too small (pointed flats, high heels that shove your foot forward), they remain in a cramped position for long periods of time and some muscles will tighten up and shrink while others lose their ability to contract.

Nerve damage from a stroke or diabetes can also contribute to the formation of hammer or mallet toes, because muscles may not receive the signals that tell them how to behave. Of course, any trauma or injury—such as seriously stubbing a toe or dropping something heavy on it—can also damage the tissue and make it unable to function properly. If you have inherited a foot shape where your second toe is the longest, it is also more likely to develop into a hammertoe.

What Hammertoes Look Like

When Hammertoe Surgery Is Needed

There are many conservative treatments for hammertoe, including wearing shoes that have plenty of room for your toes and lower heels, padding the irritated area, or using custom designed orthotics that take the pressure off the toe and help it to lie straight. We may also prescribe stretching exercises to recondition the muscles and tendons so they can perform as they should. If these methods don’t help, or if the toe has become rigid and painful, surgery may be a better option.

There are various types of procedures, from releasing the tight tendons to removing part of the bone. The goal is to get rid of your pain and allow your toes to lie flat again and not rub against your shoes. Your toe may be red, stiff, and swollen for a while after surgery, but eventually you will be able to wear your regular shoes and resume your activities.

Let Ottawa Foot Clinic experts strike the right balance between conservative treatment and knowing when surgery is necessary for your hammertoes. Call us at (613) 595-9700 and set up an appointment at our office on Deakin Street in Ottawa, ON. We’ll help you straighten out your toes so your feet don’t take a pounding!