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May 24, 2021: Do I have hammer toes and can they be treated?

What is a toe deformity?

There are various types of smaller toe deformities and depending on shape are classified as hammer, clawed or retracted toes.

There are three small bones (phalanges) in each of your four smaller (lesser) toes. The bones are connected by ligaments, which dictate range of movement and prevent dislocation. Tendons connect muscle to bone within the foot and control movement and provide stability relative to the ground when walking.

Larger muscles and tendons within the leg move the toes. Toe deformities can occur when there is a muscle imbalance within the foot and the leg. Buckling of the toes can be due to external pressures from shoes and direct injury resulting in toe deformity. Inflammatory and neurological conditions can cause toe deformity as well.

What causes the problem?

As with bunions, there is no single cause of lesser (small) toe deformities. They are frequently caused by defective mechanical structure in the foot which can be a result of genetics; certain foot types pre-dispose development of toe deformities.

Changes to lesser toe shape are commonly due to pressure from shoes or the next toe which can result in painful hard skin forming. It is quite common to see corns and calluses around the tips of toes or on top of small toe joints.

Poorly fitting footwear tends to aggravate the problem, squeezing the forefoot, crowding the toes together and worsening the underlying condition, resulting in pain and deformity of the joint. As we get older, toe deformities may progress become more pronounced. Arthritis and trauma can also play a role.

Is it serious?

Many people have pronounced toe deformities that are painless, but can cause problems with footwear, while other, more subtle toe deformities that can be very painful. Although treatment can ease pain, only surgery can correct the deformity.

Sometimes, pressure from adjacent toes can lead a cascade effect resulting in further toe deformities and/or pain in the metatarsals (long bones in the forefoot). For example, when deformity of the small toes is made worse by increasing bunion changes.

Patients who have altered nerve or blood supply to their feet and are assessed as at risk of lower limb loss, often first present with ulcers on their smaller toes. Left untreated, seemingly small issues can progress rapidly to limb threatening problems.

Who gets it?

Anyone, but they tend to be more common in women, likely due to more restrictive footwear. Parents or grandparents have toe deformities, may make you more prone to developing them. Medical conditions such as diabetes or inflammatory arthritis may also lead to development of severe toe deformities as the disease develops.

How do I prevent toe deformities?

Wearing sensible shoes that fit well is a good start. Choose wider shoes that provide toes with room to move and keep your heel height to no more than 4cm. Consider the following –

  • If you do to wear heels, vary your heel heights from day to day, one day wearing low heels and the next day slightly higher heels
  • Avoid backless, high-heeled shoes.as they force your toes to claw as you walk
  • A shoe with a fastening over the instep holds the foot secure and stable reducing the need for you to try to stabilise your foot with your toes
  • With existing toe deformities, try to accommodate your toes by selecting shoes that have a wider/deeper toe-box

Your podiatrist may recommend the following:

  • Conservative or no treatment (you can elect to live with your toe problems)
  • Regular foot-care by a Podiatrist to reduce callus build-up
  • Use of foot cream and topical medication for associated problems
  • Splints, shields, off-loading devices, pads and shoe alterations/footwear advice
  • The opinion of a Podiatric Surgeon

Non-surgical treatments can help relieve symptoms but it is unlikely they can correct the underlying deformity. Your podiatric surgeon will evaluate the extent of the deformity and remodel the shape of your toes, allowing a greater chance of fitting inside an average shoe.

Surgery is complex and intricate as deformities of the small toes can occur in any one of the three joints in each toe and in any direction. There are numerous surgical options for toe deformities and an increasing number of new technologies in surgery for small joints.

The aim of surgery is to address the underlying cause of the deformity to prevent recurrence. As with all surgery, there are risks and complications, and it is important to balance any potential risk against perceived reward when considering foot surgery.

You should certainly consider getting an opinion about surgery or surgical options from a Podiatric Surgeon if you are in pain or experiencing progressing deformity.

When should I see a podiatric surgeon about it?

If you experience any foot care issues which do not resolve themselves naturally or through routine foot care, then ask your Podiatrist to refer you to a Podiatric Surgeon.

Your Podiatric Surgeon will discuss options in a shared decision-making process accounting for your presenting symptoms, age, activity level, occupation and medical history, in conjunction with appropriate imaging. This will help you to make an informed decision on what is best for you.

Podiatrists and Podiatric Surgeons are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). You can check your professional is registered here.

If you would like more information or to make an appointment with one of our Podiatrists, call 01628 773588 or email info@maidenheadpodiatry.co.uk.