Locations:
Search IconSearch

5 Things You Should Know About Hammertoe and Other Painful Toe Deformities

Understanding hammertoe, mallet toe and claw toe

feet with hammertoe affliction

Does one of your toes appear to bend in an awkward way, or curl under painfully? If so, you may have a hammertoe.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

A hammertoe is a term that describes symptoms and joint changes involving the toes (most commonly the second toe). However, there are other types of toe deformities, including:

These happen when muscles, tendons or other tissues in the toes become shortened or hardened (this is called contracture).The deformity classification depends on the specific location of the contracture, says orthopedic surgeon Nicole Nicolosi, DPM.

These deformities sometimes need to be fixed by surgery, but there are several less invasive ways to ease pressure and relieve the pain they cause.

If you have one of these, here are five things you should know:

1. There are two types of toe contractures:

  • Flexible: The affected toes can still move at the joint.
  • Rigid: The surrounding tendons and tissues permanently tighten, and the joint becomes immobile.

If it’s not treated, a flexible hammertoe can become a rigid hammertoe, Dr. Nicolosi says.

2. Muscle imbalance causes these deformities

“A toe deformity occurs when the muscle operating the toe becomes weak and another muscle overpowers that muscle,” she explains. “This results in contracture of the toe.”

This muscle imbalance sometimes has a genetic or intrinsic component. If you have a high arch or flat feet, this can inherently cause instability in your foot when you walk.

Advertisement

An injury to the toe, often caused by the shoes you choose, also sometimes causes the imbalance.

“Long-term inappropriate shoe wear can compress the digit and cause muscle imbalance to occur,” Dr. Nicolosi says. She lists high heels and unsupportive flip-flops as examples of inappropriate footwear.

3. Hammertoe can interfere with daily activities

The digital contracture can result in rubbing on the top of the shoe.

“That can cause formation of callus tissue, which can be painful,” Dr. Nicolosi says. “The callus can then increase pressure in shoe gear, which then increases pain and therefore limits activity.”

4. You may not need surgery to ease the pressure and pain in your toes

Doctors can treat flexible hammertoes conservatively, Dr. Nicolosi says.

They may suggest a crest pad or a Budin splint; each has an elastic band that goes around the crooked toe to bring a flexible hammertoe back into the correct position.

“Another option is an in-office flexor tenotomy, which is used to cut the overpowering tight muscle tendon to correct the muscle imbalance and reduce the deformity,” she says.

For a rigid hammertoe, your doctor may suggest wearing a shoe with a deeper, fuller toe box to ease the pressure on the deformity. If this doesn’t solve the problem, however, surgery to straighten the toe is likely needed, Dr. Nicolosi says.

5. Wearing the right shoes can prevent symptoms from worsening

“Toe deformities develop due to unsupported motion, so one thing you can do to prevent symptoms from worsening is to avoid non-supportive shoes, such as high heels and unsupported flip-flops.”

She recommends a supportive shoe insert to control abnormal foot motion, as well as a supportive shoe.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person wearing toe separators.
September 20, 2022/Orthopaedics
3 Reasons To Try Toe Separators or Spacers

Toe spacers and separators can add some comfort, but they’re not a fix-all

Women's shoes displayed in a store
October 18, 2019/Orthopaedics
When Is Surgery Necessary for Hammertoe?

Increasingly effective methods available when non-surgical methods don't help

feet with hammertoe affliction
April 3, 2015/Orthopaedics
The Best Ways You Can Treat and Prevent Hammertoe

Better shoes and exercises are great places to start

Person putting on athletic shoes
July 10, 2024/Orthopaedics
How To Pick the Best Shoes for Plantar Fasciitis

Footwear that offers cushioning plus heel and arch support can help you relieve and manage symptoms

Person typing on keyboard in front of computer screen
May 29, 2024/Orthopaedics
Typing 101: How To Avoid Wrist Pain

Over-the-counter pain medications, typing pads and wrist braces can help when you’re in a wrist pinch

Ingrown toenail on big toe
March 27, 2024/Orthopaedics
Ingrown Toenail? Try These Home Remedies

Pain meds, toenail protectors and petrolatum jelly may spare you a trip to a podiatrist

Top view of person sitting in bathtub with cold water and lots of ice.
November 27, 2023/Orthopaedics
Brrr! What To Know About Cold Plunges

An ice bath can ease sore muscles and decrease inflammation after a workout

Person working on computer with hurting wrist.
November 24, 2023/Orthopaedics
11 Exercises and Stretches for Wrist Pain

Wrist flexor and extensor stretches are the best stretches for wrist pain

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad