Daily wear and tear on our feet can cause occasional toe pain. But developing mallet toe is different. You may have trouble wearing shoes, walking without discomfort or doing normal activities. Persistent toe pain caused by a bent toe should get evaluated by a healthcare provider.
A mallet toe refers to an upward bend at the toe joint. It may cause the toe to look curled instead of flat. Mallet toe happens mostly in the second toe, next to the big toe. That’s because it’s often the longest of the four smaller toes. But mallet toe can also affect the third and fourth toes.
Mallet toe involves two parts of the body. They’re called the distal interphalangeal joint (DIPJ) and the flexor digitorum longus (FDL). The DIPJ is the last joint in the toe, closest to the toenail. The FDL is a muscle that starts near the shin and runs down to the four smaller toes. It helps the toes curl. When the muscle becomes too tight, it can bend a toe joint upward.
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Mallet toes are usually described as flexible or rigid:
Mallet toes develop when a toe is repeatedly forced upward. The most common causes of mallet toes include:
The most obvious symptom of a mallet toe is curling or bending at the toe joint nearest the toenail. Other symptoms can include:
If you have diabetes, you’re at a higher risk of developing complications from foot conditions like mallet toe. Diabetes can cause nerve damage and circulation (blood flow) problems in your feet and toes. That means corns or calluses can lead to blisters or sores. And those sores, or ulcers, can develop into dangerous open wounds that are prone to infections. You’re then more likely to get infection or even gangrene (dead tissue).
Mallet toes should get diagnosed by a healthcare provider. You can start with your primary care physician (PCP) or visit a podiatrist (foot and ankle doctor). Mallet toes usually just need a thorough physical exam. Your provider will:
The physical exam can help determine if you’re putting added pressure or stress on the affected toe. In some cases, your healthcare provider may also order imaging tests. An X-ray will rule out any toe fractures (broken bones).
Mallet toe treatment can take many forms. Fortunately, most people find relief with conservative treatments. That means they don’t need surgery. If the mallet toe is still flexible, your healthcare provider may recommend:
For people with diabetes, proper foot care is essential. Tips for foot health include:
Never try to cut off corns or calluses yourself. Always allow a healthcare provider to assess diabetes-related foot issues. The provider will recommend the best treatment.
Severe or rigid mallet toes may not respond to conservative therapies. Some people will need toe surgery to restore proper alignment in the joint. Surgical options include:
All surgeries come with risks. Possible complications of mallet toe surgery include:
Taking good care of your feet can help prevent the development of mallet toes. Be sure to:
Some rigid mallet toes will remain bent permanently. But there are many ways to relieve toe joint pain and prevent further problems, such as corns and calluses.
A mallet toe on its own is usually not an urgent medical condition. But make sure to contact a healthcare provider right away if you:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your feet and toes help you do all the activities you enjoy. A condition like mallet toe can make it painful to wear shoes, walk or exercise. If you’re dealing with persistent foot pain, get help from a healthcare provider. There are a wide range of treatment options available for most foot and toe issues. Some involve surgery, but many don’t.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/20/2021.
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