The most bothersome aspect of living with a hammertoe deformity may be the foot pain and walking issues it can cause — but the most worrisome thing about it is arguably its potential for progression and worsening foot problems that have the capacity to change your gait or limit your physical activity.
As board-certified orthopedists who specialize in hammertoe treatment, our skilled team at Sports Medicine Oregon can help you alleviate bothersome symptoms of early deformity and stop or reverse its progression. We can also treat advanced, rigid hammertoe deformities with corrective toe joint surgery.
Here, our seasoned foot and ankle experts explore the ins and outs of hammertoe, including how to recognize when it’s becoming detrimental to your health.
Hammertoe deformities explained
Named for the irregular, hammer-shaped bend it causes in the middle toe joint, a hammertoe deformity prevents the affected toe from lying flat and straight. Besides causing ongoing foot pain and walking difficulties, a perpetually bent toe is more likely to develop painful corns and calluses.
The deforming and progressive joint changes that define hammertoe are identified by a stiff bend at the middle (second) toe joint. When this joint is perpetually bent, the affected toe is stuck in the shape of an inverted V. Hammertoe typically affects the middle toes, also known as your lesser digits, and rarely affects the big toe or pinky toe.
While most hammertoe deformities are caused by a fundamental imbalance between the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that function to keep the toe straight and flat, other factors can contribute to or worsen the problem, including:
- Wearing narrow, tight-fitting, or high-heeled shoes
- Having flat, flexible feet or feet with high arches
- Having foot arthritis that damages the toe joints
- Living with a foot-affecting neuromuscular disease
- Sustaining trauma, like a severe stub or toe fracture
Some people develop a hammertoe deformity because of an inherited foot structure that makes the problem more likely. Women are also more vulnerable to developing the condition than men — especially as they get older.
The danger of hammertoe progression
Most people with an early-stage hammertoe deformity would say the problem is irritating — but probably wouldn’t describe it as detrimental or harmful to their general well-being.
Unfortunately, hammertoe is a progressive condition that often becomes more problematic as time goes on. While we wouldn’t describe it as dangerous, it does have the strong potential for being disruptive — and for causing increasingly bothersome problems that can be even more serious for people with poor circulation or diabetes.
Let’s take a closer look at the three stages of a hammertoe deformity:
With early-stage hammertoe, the affected toe joint is still somewhat pliable — and you can still move the affected toe. Flexible hammertoe responds well to interventional care; the worst part about this phase tends to be redness, swelling, and pain in the ball of the foot near the affected toe.
At this moderate stage of deformity, the affected toe joint becomes more rigid. A semi-rigid hammertoe is one that’s becoming less flexible as it’s beginning to stiffen. At this stage, it can be harder to find comfortable shoes; painful corns (where shoes rub the top of the toe joint) and calluses (where the tip of the toe digs into the ground) are also more likely.
Without intervention at the early or semi-rigid stage, a hammertoe deformity may become fully rigid. At this late stage, the tendons in the affected toe joint are so tight that the joint becomes completely fixed and immobile. Besides causing foot pain, rigid hammertoe can change your gait, limit your mobility, and make you less likely to engage in your usual physical activities.
Effective hammertoe management
Early expert intervention and care is imperative to avoiding the potential dangers that come with an advancing hammertoe deformity, and our team is here to help. Our approach falls into two general categories based on the stage of joint rigidity:
Flexible and some semi-rigid hammertoe deformities can benefit from many conservative interventions, ranging from footwear changes and custom orthotics to correcting faulty foot mechanics with physical therapy.
It’s always best to treat a hammertoe deformity as early as possible, simply because a toe joint that’s still flexible can often be relaxed and restored to its normal position without surgery.
When a hammertoe deformity is too rigid to benefit from conservative care, corrective surgery is usually the best option. Hammertoe surgery may involve releasing a tight tendon, removing a bony prominence, or simply restoring normal joint alignment.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a hammertoe deformity, now’s the time to address the problem — and we’re here to help. Call your nearest Sports Medicine Oregon office in Tigard or Wilsonville, Oregon, today, or schedule a visit online.