Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR
The term hammer toe refers to a common deformity of the foot in which either the second, third, or fourth toe is bent at the middle joint, so that the tip of the toe is bent downward while the middle of the toe is cocked upward resembling a hammer. The hammer toe deformity is the most common deformity of the small toes.
When a hammer toe first develops, it can be bent back into its normal position. If not treated, a hammer toe may become rigid and require surgical correction in order to correct the deformity. Symptoms and signs associated with hammer toe include corns or calluses on the affected toe and pain in the affected area. It may be difficult for people suffering from hammer toe to find comfortable shoes.
A common cause of hammer toe is wearing shoes that do not fit properly. Poorly-fitting shoes can hold the toes in an abnormal position and result in tightening of the muscles required to maintain that position. In particular, shoes that have high heels and are narrow at front tend to push the toes into an abnormal, bent position.
Less commonly, diseases of the nerves, muscles, or joints (such as arthritis) can result in the hammer toe deformity.
If you have hammer toe, avoiding tight shoes and high heels may provide relief. Initial (non-surgical) treatment for hammer toe involves wearing shoes with plenty of room in the toe area. Shoes should be at least one-half inch longer than the longest toe. Stretching and strengthening exercises for the toes (such as picking up items with the toes or stretching the toes by hand) are also recommended. Sometimes orthopedists recommend special pads, cushions, or slings to help relieve the pain of hammer toe.
In more advanced cases of hammer toe, or when the accompanying pain cannot be relieved by conservative treatment, surgery may be required. Different types of surgical procedures are performed to correct hammer toe, depending on the location and extent of the problem. Surgical treatment is generally effective for both flexible and fixed (rigid) forms of hammer toe. Recurrence following surgery may develop in persons with flexible hammer toe, particularly if they resume wearing poorly-fitted shoes after the deformity is corrected.