A hammertoe is a toe that has become misshapen, assuming a claw-like appearance. Hammertoes can develop in any toe except the big toe. They occur when tendons and ligaments that support the toe begin to pull on the toe, causing it to curve downward. Often, hammertoes are accompanied by corns that develop on the upper surface of the toe where the bend rubs against the inside surfaces of shoes. Hammertoes are most likely to develop in people with specific foot shapes that makes them more predisposed to the condition as well as people who regularly wear shoes that are too tight or otherwise do not fit properly.
Initially, hammertoes are flexible, and treatment can be accomplished with the use of splints and custom orthotics to coax the toe back into its normal shape. Orthotics can relieve pressure on the toe in addition to providing support for the tendons, ligaments, and muscles that support the toe. Stretching exercises can also help by promoting better flexibility in the joint. If hammertoes are not treated promptly, they can become stiff, and surgery may be necessary to reposition the tendons and other tissues to enable the toe to resume its normal shape. In some cases, the joint may need to be surgically “fused” to provide stability and prevent pain when walking.
One of the best ways to prevent hammertoes is to switch to shoes that provide more room in the toe area so the toes are not cramped or pushed forward. Avoiding high heels can also help. It's also very important to schedule an office visit at the first sign of pain or stiffness, or if the shape of the toe begins to change to ensure treatment can be provided while the joint is still flexible.