Hammer Toe Treatment, Pain relief, Prevention & FAQs

Claw, Mallet or Rotated Toe—Causes, symptoms & advice from our foot doctors

Hammertoes are one of the most common, treatable foot conditions. According to one study, around 3% of adults (or 7 million people) nationwide have experienced hammer toe, claw toe, or mallet toe. Far more women than men are diagnosed with this type of toe deformity.

Our caring podiatrists are able to diagnose and treat hammertoes quickly and effectively. If you're suffering toe pain caused by hammertoes (or even if you aren't sure) get in touch right away for an evaluation. A good rule of thumb with toe pain: the longer you ignore it, the harder it will be to treat.

Explore this article:

What is a hammertoe?

A hammertoe is a deformity causing your toe(s) to have an abnormal bend in the middle joint.

Hammertoe is diagnosed when the middle joint of the second, third or fourth toe is bent abnormally, causing the toe(s) to curl under the foot. A hammer toe deformity is pretty easy to spot, because the middle part of the toe will be bent and sticking upward, while the end of the toe is flexed downward (creating a shape vaguely like a hammer).

Hammertoe treatment in Milwaukee

Our Milwaukee podiatrists treat hammertoe pain for lasting relief.

What are the differences between hammer, claw, and mallet toes?

Hammertoes, claw toes and mallet toes are all types of digital contracture causing deformity. The difference is in which toe joints are affected:

A hammer toe has the middle joint sticking up and the end of the toe bent downward. Hammer toes usually affect the second toe and are commonly found along with bunions.

A claw toe is when the metatarsophalangeal joint (where the toe meets the foot) is sticking upwards, while the middle joint and end of the toe curl down. Claw toe usually affects all four smaller toes at the same time.

A mallet toe is when the joint nearest the end of the toe buckles and is bent downward. Mallet toes usually affect the second toe, but can occur in the others too.

A related condition called rotated toe can be caused by your foot turning inwards when running or walking, which puts more weight on the outside of the pinky toe. Rotated toe can also be caused by hammertoes and bunions.

Types of digital contracture in the toes are also categorized by how rigid the toe is: flexible, semi-rigid, or rigid. Flexible hammertoes are likely to become more rigid over time, resulting in more pain and loss of function.

What’s the difference between a hammer toe and a bunion?

A hammertoe causes the middle joint of a middle toe to protrude upward while the end of the toe bends or curls down.

A bunion is a deformity in the big toe or pinky toe causing a painful bump on the outside edge of the foot.

Hammertoes are often associated with bunions and frequently occur together. Both deformities are commonly caused by abnormal foot structure or wearing ill-fitting shoes.

Because mild hammertoe tends to progress and get worse over time, it's important to seek early diagnosis and treatment as early as possible. Rigid hammertoes are less likely to respond to non-surgical treatments.

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What causes hammertoe?

Hammertoe is is caused by an imbalance of strength in the toes. Weakened toe muscles lead to shorter tendons, which causes the contraction.

High heeled shoes can cause hammertoe

Hammertoes can be caused by your shoes, an injury, or even your genes.

You can be born with hammertoe as the result of a deformity in your foot structure such as abnormal bone length or an inherited muscle problem. Hammer toe can also be caused by spinal cord or peripheral nerve damage related to stroke, degenerative disc disease, or a congenital disease such as cerebral palsy.

Most cases of hammer toe develop over time as the result of:

  • Wearing improperly fitting shoes (high heels or other too-tight, too-small footwear)
  • Serious toe injuries (stubs, jams, dislocation or fracture)
  • Nerve injuries or disorders (nerve entrapment, Morton’s Neuroma, peripheral neuropathy)
  • Arthritis

In some cases, hammertoe forms because the foot and toes are being affected by another issue in the foot or ankle. Hammertoe can also develop when a person is bedridden for an extended period.

An excessive amount of pressure put on your toes can cause the middle joint of any toe to dislocate. The result is severe pain and discomfort.

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Hammertoe Symptoms: Breaking Down the Pain

The effects of a hammertoe extend far beyond the initial pain of the condition. People with hammer toe are at risk of developing more hammertoes or other painful conditions including blisters, corns, calluses and bunions. 

Common symptoms of hammertoe include:

  • Pain in the affected toe
  • Pain on top of the toe(s) when putting on shoes
  • Swelling, redness, and/or a burning sensation in your toes or foot
  • Stiffness and/or inability to move your toes
  • Inability to straighten your toe(s)
  • Middle joint of toe is bent upwards with the end of the toe bent downwards

While hammertoe is usually obvious, your podiatrist may order X-rays to better examine the bone structure of the entire foot and toes.

Foot with hammertoe, bunion, and corns being treated a foot doctor in Milwaukee

Hammertoes often occur with bunions, corns, calluses & other painful foot problems.

Other problems associated with hammertoe:

Hammertoe often causes corns or calluses where the bent toe rubs against the inside of a shoe, presses on another toe, or where the tip of the affected toe presses into the ground. In severe cases, calluses may also form on the ball of the foot.

Open sores can develop from friction caused by hammertoes.

Hammertoe can lead to thick (and sometimes discolored) skin over the toe joints known as ‘knuckle pads,’ which are smoother than a corn or callus.

Hammertoes can cause problems with balance and walking, especially when all the toes aren’t able to touch the ground.

Even if your hammer toe isn’t causing you any pain or discomfort now, it’s important to get a professional evaluation and treatment. The longer symptoms are ignored, the more likely it is surgery will be necessary to treat the deformity.

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Hammertoe treatments 

Hammertoe surgery should only be used as a last resort. There are several non-invasive treatments for hammertoe symptoms to provide relief.

Wear comfortable shoes. Select footwear with plenty of room in the toe box and avoid high heels. Choose shoes with arch support or use custom orthotics or inserts to provide necessary support. If possible, wear sneakers or sandals to avoid anything rubbing on the affected toes. Some patients opt for custom-made footwear or shoes designed for people with foot deformities.

Use products to cushion your hammer toe and help hold your foot in a more comfortable position. These can include:

  • Metatarsal pads with a loop that goes around your second or third toe, keeping the pad secure beneath the ball of the foot.
  • Toe wraps or splints hold two toes together to cushion and straighten. These can help reduce pain and keep toes from overlapping.
  • Hammer toe taping involves wrapping tape in an over-under pattern to coax the hammer toe back into a healthy position.
  • Toe socks are gel-lined, providing separation and relief from corns and soreness caused by hammer toe.
  • Hammer toe crest pads are made from SmartGel and loop around the second or third toe. A crest of gel lies beneath the small toes, providing support, easing pressure, and relieving pain.
  • Toe stretchers are flexible devices used to separate and stretch the toes and muscles of the feet. These can be effective in relieving pain when worn for 5-10 minutes per day, but cannot be worn with footwear.

Hammer toe exercises for pain relief (and to keep a hammer toe from getting worse) include:

  • Manually stretch your toes by gently pulling to straighten the bent joints
  • Place your bare feet on a towel and use your toes to scrunch up the fabric
  • Pick up marbles using your toes

Other health conditions such as diabetes can affect circulation and healing. Patients with diabetes should see a foot doctor for treatment of hammertoe or any other foot issues.

If at-home treatments don’t relieve your pain after 2-3 weeks, we recommend seeing a podiatrist. Never pursue a hammer toe treatment if it causes sores, which carry risk of infection.

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Preventing hammertoe by wearing comfortable shoes that fit

An easy way to treat or prevent hammertoe pain is wearing comfortable shoes.

How to prevent hammer toe

The best way people can avoid getting hammer toe in the first place is to choose sensible, comfortable, supportive footwear. Foot size can change from pregnancy or the aging process, so be sure to pay attention to how your shoes are fitting and get new measurements taken if necessary.

If it’s hard to find shoes that accommodate your foot shape, you may need to find specially made footwear or custom orthotics.

It’s also important to treat corns and calluses whenever they form on your feet and toes. Untreated corns and the associated pain lead to imbalances and cause more serious issues including hammertoe.

Foot exercises aren’t just for confirmed cases of hammer toe – it’s important to keep all the muscles in your toes, feet, and legs strong and supple to support healthy form and function.

Remember: heredity also plays a part in who gets hammer toe, no matter how well you care for your feet. When in doubt, see an experienced podiatrist for assessment and personalized recommendations.

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Hammertoe FAQ

Does hammer toe ever go away on its own?

Hammertoe is a progressive deformity. It usually gets worse over time and doesn’t go away on its own.

If you are able to remove the underlying cause of a hammer toe deformity (such as frequently wearing high heels) and treat the symptoms early on, a hammer toe can go away. In some cases (for example when a hammer toe is very rigid or caused by abnormal bone or muscle in your foot) professional treatment is required to find relief.

Can you reverse a hammer toe?

In almost all cases a hammertoe can be reversed through non-invasive treatments, hammertoe surgery, or a combination. The sooner you seek professional medical help for a hammertoe deformity, the more likely it is you can avoid surgery.

What is the best treatment for hammer toe?

There are many effective treatments for hammer toe, some of which can be done at home. The most effective treatment depends on the cause of your deformity, how far along it’s progressed, and any other medical conditions you may have.

Ready to stop hurting? Get help!

Take the next step towards improving the quality of your life and contact Advanced Foot and Ankle for a professional consultation today. Don’t let your hammertoe or other form of toe pain debilitate you.

Our group of talented and experienced foot doctors have the knowledge and expertise to correctly diagnose and treat your toe pain the first time. With five podiatry clinics in the Milwaukee area, Advanced Foot & Ankle of Wisconsin is the best and most convenient way to get back on your feet. We accept most types of insurance and offer patient financing through Parasail to help with out-of-pocket expenses.

Contact our foot specialists today to get more information on hammertoe treatment options.