Person on a beach with hammertoe

Hammertoe and other foot deformities​

Hammertoe is a deformity of the toe that causes it to stay curled or flexed downward. It usually happens in the second toe but may affect the other toes as well. In its early stages, hammertoe is flexible, but it may become fixed as your condition progresses. With more advanced hammertoe, the affected toes remain in a claw-like position and are unable to straighten. At this point, surgery may be needed.

Since hammertoe is a progressive disease, it does not go away and will most likely worsen over time without treatment. 

Hammertoe is caused by an imbalance between the muscles and tendons in your feet. Over time, this imbalance can lead to structural and neurological changes to your foot and toes. Shoes that don’t fit you properly or that force your toes into a cramped, narrowed position can aggravate hammertoe and increase the risk of long-term damage.

Other foot deformities include:

  • Adult acquired flatfoot—a painful condition that results from the collapse of the lengthwise arch of the foot.

  • Bunions—people with hammertoes often have underlying bunion deformity.

  • High arched foot—the arch does not flex so an excessive amount of weight is placed on the ball and heel of the foot when walking or standing.

  • Neuropathy—is a tingling or numbness, especially in the hands and feet that is caused by damaged nerves. People with neuropathy or diabetes can often develop hammertoe deformity.

Hammertoe symptoms

The symptoms of hammertoe are:

  • Corns and calluses around the affected toe or toes

  • Inability to straighten the affected toe or toes

  • Inflammation, redness or burning in the affected area

  • Pain that worsens when wearing shoes

  • Pain that increases with movement

Hammertoe diagnosis

Hammertoe is fairly easy to identify with a physical examination. The middle joint of your toe is bent downwards and resembles a claw. You may have limited movement and pain, and not be able to straighten all your toes.

Your doctor may recommend an X-ray to assess the bone structure of your foot and determine the extent of the damage.

Hammertoe treatment 

If hammertoe is in its early stages, treatment may include:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs—like ibuprofen to reduce swelling and pain.

  • Footwear change—to well-fitting shoes with a wide toe base and a low heel.

  • Orthotics—customized arch support devices.

  • Pads—to shield corns and calluses from irritation.

  • Splints—to realign the affected toe or toes and hold them in place.

Once hammertoe progresses, surgery may be necessary. The main reasons to do surgery are for severe pain or if you are having any issues with the skin on top of the knuckle.  Your surgeon may:

  • Cut or transplant the tendons of your damaged toes

  • Fuse your joint together to straighten the toe so it doesn’t bend

  • Remove pieces of your toe bones

The nationally recognized specialists at The Christ Hospital Health Network provide patient-centered care for foot and toe issues. Our team of experts uses advanced technology to diagnose and treat hammertoe and other foot deformities.

Find a foot and ankle specialist near you.