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Understanding Hammer Toes: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Hammer toes are foot deformities in which the toe has a permanent abnormal bend in the middle joint. While they can happen to any toe, they are most common in the second through fifth toes.

They can be painful, especially when wearing shoes or exercising.

Learn more about what causes hammer toes, recognize the symptoms, and understand how to treat them if they do appear. Better yet, read this post to make sure that you never develop them yourself!

What are the Causes of Hammer Toes?

Hammer toes form when the toes are squished together for long periods of time. They are one of the most common foot injuries caused by the wear of traditional shoes, particularly those with pointed tips.

Hammertoes are more common in women, largely due to the use of high heels which cause an abnormal balance in the toe muscles. 

Age can also play a role in the onset of hammertoes, as can diseases like arthritis and diabetes.

The name of the problem derives from the fact that the toes resemble hammers. If you place your shoeless feet flat on the ground, and curl the toes, that’s a bit what hammertoes look like.

There are two different types of Hammertoes - flexible and rigid.

Flexible Hammer toes are still treatable because they are still developing. At this stage, the joint is still flexible.

Rigid Hammer toes are more severe and may be past the treatment stage. At this point, the tendons in the affected toes have become tight and the joint immobile and out of alignment. 

Surgery may be the only method of treatment.

Symptoms of Hammer Toes

Signs and symptoms of hammer toes include:

  • Toes bent at the middle joint
  • Pain at the top of the foot 
  • Corns and calluses on the top of the toes
  • Redness and swelling at the damaged joint
  • Restricted mobility of the afflicted toe
  • Pain in the ball of the foot

Are Hammer Toes Bad?

Hammertoes limit mobility and over time, the bend in the toe can become permanent, as a result of tendons that have contracted and tightened for long periods of time.

The deformity can result in the shoe rubbing against the bent portion of the toe, causing calluses or corns, which can be extremely painful.

In severe cases, the toe may become completely immobile, which can affect your balance and ability to exercise.

How to Treat Hammer Toes

If caught early on, hammer toes can be treated and often reversed. Left too long, however, the damage could become permanent and may require surgery to fix. 

There are several treatment options that can reduce the pain, increase flexibility in the joint, and even decrease the growth of the hammer toe.

Switch to a Natural-Shaped Shoe

Given that improperly-fitting shoes is the primary cause of hammer toes, changing the shape of your shoes should be the first step in your treatment plan. 

Natural, or foot-shaped shoes, like Lems, provide ample space for the toes to naturally splay. This allows the toes to expand and stay flat in their natural shape, leading to increased toe strength.

Before purchasing a new pair of shoes, be sure to get your foot measured to ensure that you are wearing the right size

Go shopping later in the day, when your feet are more swollen. If you need to, go up a half size to allow for plenty of space for your longest toe, usually the second toe. 

Foot Strengthening Exercises for Hammer Toes

Though often ignored by many athletes, foot strength is just as important as strengthening other parts of the body! 

Stronger feet mean improved balance, quicker response time to terrain, and more importantly, prevention of foot deformities, like hammer toes and bunions.

We put together a list of 7 foot-strengthening exercises to improve performance, increase strength and mobility, and reduce injuries. The towel curls described in this article are ideal for hammer toes.

Dedicate just a few minutes each day to building foot strength and you’ll notice a difference over time.

Padding and Taping

Applying padding to the bent joint can prevent the onset of calluses and corn or minimize the pain if they already exist. You can find non-medicated foot pads at your local drug store.

Taping toes together can change the muscle imbalance.

If you have tried the above remedies with no relief, it may be time to see your podiatrist to prescribe other treatments or recommend surgery.

Ultimately, you want to stop hammer toes from forming in the first place. If you think you may have hammer toes, think about whether your footwear could use an upgrade to better accommodate your toes.

Always remember that the issue of hammer toes and other foot deformities often comes down to improper footwear! The best option for change is by wearing a shoe with a wide toe box that compliments the natural shape of the foot, and grants a wide toe splay. 

To get your feet back on a healthier, pain-free path, Lems are an ideal option for people with hammer toes, and will hopefully make them a thing of the past!

Additional Articles

Why Wearing Shoes with Arch Support Can Lead to Problems

For those with flat feet, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, or some other ailment of the feet, most store clerks or doctors would prescribe a shoe with good arch support. However, the majority of people wearing shoes with artificial arch support are not doing their feet a service.

Understanding Bunions: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Long-term use of narrow shoes can have lasting consequences on the foot’s functional anatomy and are legitimately tied to the formation of bunions–a foot deformity in the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint at the base of the big toe.
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