What are hammertoes, mallet toes and claw toes? Often the words are used interchangeably to mean an abnormally contracted toe like the drawing above. Technically speaking, a "hammertoes" is the name for a toe that is contracted at the first toe joint. If it's contracted at the second toe joint it is called a "mallet toe". IIf a toe is contracted at both toe joints, it is called a "claw toe". Each of these conditions can be quite uncomfortable and are cosmetically unappealing.
Hammertoes are a contracture of the toes as a result of a muscle imbalance between the tendons on the top of the toes (extensor tendons) and the tendons on the bottom of the toes (flexor tendons). If there is an imbalance in the foot muscles that stabilize the toe, the smaller muscles can be overpowered by the larger flexor and extensor muscles.
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.
Although hammertoes are readily apparent, to arrive at a diagnosis the foot and ankle surgeon will obtain a thorough history of your symptoms and examine your foot. During the physical examination, the doctor may attempt to reproduce your symptoms by manipulating your foot and will study the contractures of the toes. In addition, the foot and ankle surgeon may take x-rays to determine the degree of the deformities and assess any changes that may have occurred.
Non Surgical Treatment
There is a variety of treatment options for hammertoe. The treatment your foot and ankle surgeon selects will depend upon the severity of your hammertoe and other factors. A number of non-surgical measures can be undertaken. Padding corns and calluses. Your foot and ankle surgeon can provide or prescribe pads designed to shield corns from irritation. If you want to try over-the-counter pads, avoid the medicated types. Medicated pads are generally not recommended because they may contain a small amount of acid that can be harmful. Consult your surgeon about this option. Changes in shoewear. Avoid shoes with pointed toes, shoes that are too short, or shoes with high heels, conditions that can force your toe against the front of the shoe. Instead, choose comfortable shoes with a deep, roomy toe box and heels no higher than two inches. Orthotic devices. A custom orthotic device placed in your shoe may help control the muscle/tendon imbalance. Injection therapy. Corticosteroid injections are sometimes used to ease pain and inflammation caused by hammertoe. Medications. Oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may be recommended to reduce pain and inflammation. Splinting/strapping. Splints or small straps may be applied by the surgeon to realign the bent toe.
Probably the most frequent procedure performed is one called a Post or an Arthroplasty. In this case a small piece of bone is removed from the joint to straighten the toe. The toe is shortened somewhat, but there is still motion within the toe post-operatively. In other cases, an Arthrodesis is performed. This involves fusing the abnormally-contracted joint. The Taylor procedure fuses only the first joint in the toe, whereas the Lambrinudi procedure fuses both joints within the toe. Toes which have had these procedures are usually perfectly straight, but they take longer to heal and don't bend afterwards. A Hibbs procedure is a transfer of the toe's long extensor tendon to the top of the metatarsal bone. The idea of this procedure is to remove the deforming cause of the hammertoes (in this case, extensor substitution), but to preserve the tendon's function in dorsifexing the foot by reattaching it to the metatarsals. Fortunately, the Gotch (or Gotch and Kreuz) procedure--the removal of the base of the toe where it attaches to the foot, is done less frequently than in years past. The problem with this procedure is that it doesn't address the problem at the level of the deformity, and it causes the toe to become destabilized, often resulting in hammertoes a toe that has contracted up and back onto the top of the foot. You can even have an Implant Arthroplasty procedure, where a small, false joint is inserted into place. There are several other procedures, as well.
In some cases foot problems may present at birth, many foot problems such as hammer toes can be prevented. Hammer toe prevention can be a simple process, such as, checking your feet regularly and wearing the right shoes for your feet. Good circulation is also an essential part of foot health and hammer toe prevention. Taking a warm foot bath or giving yourself a foot massage are great ways of keeping your feet healthy.