Toes may be small, but when one or more get bent out of shape, you get bent out of shape right along with them. Hammertoes, a common deformity that involves toe joints getting “stuck” in a bent position, may start out as a minor annoyance, but in time can lead to significant pain and discomfort, difficulty walking, skin sores, and other problems.
Why Toes Get Bent Out of Shape
The root of the problem is a muscle imbalance. Skeletal muscles work in pairs to move body parts around, and your toes are no different. To curl a toe, one muscle contracts while its partner relaxes. To extend it again, they switch roles. Hammertoes occur when those muscles are out of whack and can no longer extend the toe.
One reason this might happen? Shoes with high heels and/or narrow toe boxes often force toes into an unnatural bent position for long periods of time. If you make a habit of wearing footwear that cramps your toes, they may become stuck that way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of hammertoe sufferers are women. Unfortunately, women’s shoe styles tend to be much more stressful on feet and toes than men’s styles.
Other potential causes include nerve injuries or other trauma that can lead to muscle imbalances in the toes.
Progression of the Problem and Other Risks
In the early stages, the condition may be mild and flexible—although the toe will “stick” in a bent position, you can still straighten it out using your fingers. However, over time the joints become rigid and lock into place. Aside from pain and difficulty walking or finding comfortable shoes, secondary problems caused by bent toes may include painful corns or blisters that appear where a raised digit is rubbing against the inside of a shoe.
Because the condition is progressive, your toes will not straighten out on their own. The longer you wait to receive treatment, the more serious the problem (and more difficult the treatment) will be.
You may have heard of more than one of these conditions and wonder which one is which. It actually has to do with which joints are affected: hammertoes affect the middle joint, while mallet toe affects the final one, just before the tip. Claw toes are the full package—toes that bend up at the first joint, down at the middle, and down again at the tip. Though slightly different, all three conditions share similar causes and treatments.
Pounding out a Treatment Plan
Treatment varies based on the severity of your condition. The earlier you seek help, the better chance you have at success with simple, non-invasive procedures.
At the “easy” end of the spectrum, simply switching to a roomier pair of shoes full time—or having a good shoe repair shop stretch the toe boxes on your favorite dress pairs—may be all the treatment you need. This may be accompanied by padded inserts and gentle exercises to help support your feet, protect sensitive spots, and strengthen your toe muscles.
If conservative treatments don’t resolve your discomfort, or the toes have already become rigid, we may recommend surgical correction. A procedure will be selected based on the particulars of your case and performed right in our office. These surgeries are highly effective on average, though like any operation are not without risks. If we do recommend surgery, we will make sure you have all the information you need to make a fully informed decision.
To schedule an appointment at our office in Lancaster, Fort Mill, or Chester, SC, you can contact Carolina Podiatry Group online or by phone toll free at 888-569-9559.