What is hammertoe?

Hammertoe syndrome is a general term used to describe symptoms and joint changes involving the toes. Hammertoes most frequently involve the second toe, however, multiple toes can be involved. If the joint on one of your toes — usually the toe next to the big toe or the smallest toe — points upward rather than lying flat, you might have a hammertoe.

The condition is actually a deformity that happens when one of the toe muscles becomes weak and puts pressure on the toe’s tendons and joints. This pressure forces the toe to become misshapen and stick up at the joint.

Also, there’s frequently a corn or callus on top of the deformed toe. This outgrowth can cause pain when it rubs against the shoe.

Two types of hammertoe exist:

  • Flexible hammertoes are in the developmental stage and the affected toes are still moveable at the joint.
  • Rigid hammertoes are more serious. The tendons tighten and the joints become misaligned and immobile.

What are the symptoms of hammertoe?

Symptoms of hammertoe include:

  • Pain at the top of the bent toe.
  • Corns at the top of the joint.
  • Redness and swelling at the joint contracture.
  • Restricted or painful motion of the toe joint.
  • Pain in the ball of the foot at the base of the affected toe.

What causes the pain of hammertoe?

Hammertoes are caused by an abnormal muscle balance in the toes, which leads to increased pressures on the toe tendon and joints. Your shoes, your genetic predisposition, an underlying medical condition or all of these can make you susceptible to developing one of these deformities of the toes.

  • The genes your parents gave you. When it comes to genetics, the foot type you’re born with predisposes you to developing this type of joint deformity over a lifetime. Flat, flexible feet can lead to hammertoes as the foot tries to stabilize against a flattening arch. Feet with high arches can also form hammertoes as the extensor tendons overpower the flexors.
  • Poorly fitted shoes. Too-narrow, ill-fitting shoes, such as high heels, have little to no arch support. High heels put severe pressure on the toes and their joints. That’s why more cases of hammertoes are found in women than men.
  • Other ailments. Neuromuscular diseases can contribute to the development of hammertoe, too. People with diabetes can be at increased risk for complications from a hammertoe. For them, a toe with a corn or other ulceration indicates there's too much pressure on the toes. In people with diabetes who have poor blood flow or neuropathy, infected corns and lesions can lead to the loss of a toe or foot unless shoes are modified.

Reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional.

References

  • American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. Hammertoe. Accessed 6/3/2020.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Hammer Toe. Accessed 6/3/2020.
  • American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society. Hammertoe. Accessed 6/3/2020.

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