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woman with a hammertoe in SeattleHammertoe is a common type of foot deformity. The name itself reveals the condition—people with this condition have one or more toes that either bend upward or curl inward at an unnatural angle, resembling the curved claw on a hammer.

A single hammertoe can often be identified by an abnormal bend in its middle joint. Some patients have a curve or arch which begins at the last joint, closest to the toenail. While this isn’t technically hammertoe, it is a similar condition called mallet toe.

If you have either one of these conditions, you may notice some or all of the following signs and symptoms:

  • The signature bend, or arch, which gives the condition its name
  • Pain when you wiggle or move the affected toe(s)
  • Corns, bunions, calluses, or other friction-related injuries

The last set of conditions is particularly significant: since hammertoe puts your toes in an unusual position, you’re much more likely to develop a bunion or corn than you otherwise may.

Possible Causes of Hammertoe

wearing high heeled shoes can put you at risk for hammertoeSimilar to many other problems that befall your feet, hammertoe has several different causes. In some cases, these causes are natural, but others may relate to your lifestyle, age, or even the kinds of shoes you wear. Some of the most common causes include:

  • Faulty foot structure. If you have flat feet or high arches you're more at risk for developing hammertoe. 
  • Wearing the wrong shoesIf you regularly wear high heels or shoes with a small toe box, your toes may be crowded and curled inside. If they spend too much time crowded and curled, they may stay that way when you’re barefoot.
  • Injury, such as a jam, stub, or fracture. While you may be able to overcome the trauma, sometimes your body doesn’t heal quite the right way. In some cases, this may cause hammertoe or mallet toe to develop.
  • Weak muscles. Poorly or abnormally balanced toe muscles may make one or more of your toes contract.

Who’s at Risk of Developing Hammertoe

Like most physical disorders, certain people are more likely to develop a hammertoe than others. For example:

  • Older adults have a higher chance of developing hammertoe or mallet toe.
  • Women have an elevated risk because they are more likely than men to wear constrictive footwear such as high heels.
  • People with arthritis, diabetes, or one of several other illnesses are more likely to develop general foot-related problems.

Really, hammertoe can happen to almost anyone. Did you know that your risk is higher if your second toe is longer than your big toe? It’s true!

Managing Hammertoe at Home

Since hammertoe often arises from lifestyle choices, you can take some steps to manage it at home. If your toes are bent or seem to be bending, you’ll want to take a break from wearing heels, pointed shoes, or any other footwear that’s going to put your toes in an unnatural or uncomfortable position. You may also want to consider buying new, roomier shoes. In the meantime, and until your hammertoe has healed, you can try:

  • Getting a special hammertoe pad from your podiatrist. We recommend Dr. Jill's Gels Hammer Toe Cushion.
  • Applying ice packs to the affected toes several times per day
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medications to manage any disruptive discomfort

Sometimes home care is enough to relieve hammertoe. Other times, however, you may find your toes reluctant to curl back into their natural position—or you may have pain that doesn’t seem keen on going away.

Treating Hammertoe Conservatively in North Seattle

orthotics for treating hammertoeFor stubborn cases of hammertoe, consult a podiatrist. We have a variety of techniques and tools to help your feet help themselves. In many cases, a podiatrist will x-ray the affected foot to identify your exact bone positions. They might then recommend or apply:

  • Pads and tape to help reposition your toe and relieve pain (see Dr. Jill's Gels Hammertoe Cushion above)
  • Special orthotic devices, including custom-made shoes, that use your body’s physical contours and features to set your toes straight and promote healing
  • Higher-grade medication, for particularly painful cases

Minimally Invasive Hammertoe Surgery in Seattle

At some point, you may decide that conservative treatment is no longer working for you. Fortunately, we now offer minimally invasive hammertoe surgery to our patients right at our office. While typical surgery can require prolonged healing time, minimally invasive surgery significantly reduces post-surgical discomfort and gets you back on your feet faster. 

Preventing Hammertoe

The best way to prevent a hammertoe from developing is to wear comfortable, supportive shoes that fit well and have enough room in the toe box. 

Dr. Rion Berg
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A podiatrist in North Seattle treating families for over 40 years.