Here’s something almost anybody who’s ever used a computer can relate to: a screen freeze. You’re surfing the internet or working on a paper, and suddenly your mouse stops and the entire screen locks into place.
Your joints can lock up like that, too. Hammertoes are a condition where the middle joint of one or more of your toes (often the second, but also the third and fourth) get stuck in a bent position. At first, the joint stays flexible to some degree, allowing you the ability to reposition it (temporarily) with your fingers, taping, or splinting, but eventually toe becomes rigidly locked in place.
A toe out of alignment can cause significant distress and pain when wearing shoes or walking. You may find picking a pair of shoes that fit properly and allow you to walk without pain almost impossible.
These toe deformities can also be a primary contributing factor to secondary issues. This might include the development of corns, calluses, or blisters, or even open sores on the tops or tips of toes from constant friction.
What Causes Bent Toes?
There may be genetic or environmental factors (or often, both) contributing to their formation. Some people may simply be more prone to developing the condition due to inherited foot structure—for example, those with longer-than-usual second toes. Certain mechanical or neurological changes over time can create an imbalance in the muscles responsible for flexing or extending the toe, as well.
In terms of environment, toes that stay bent are frequently linked to wearing poorly fitting shoes, especially those that are too tight in front or have high heels. It’s not clear whether such shoes are sufficient to cause the issue on their own, but they can definitely aggravate an existing problem and speed the progression.
First Treatment Option: Conservative Care
It’s important to recognize that only surgery can permanently unbend a hammertoe. However, in the early stages when the joint remains flexible, conservative care may be effective in relieving pain, preventing complications, and slowing progression. This may allow you to delay or avoid surgery.
Conservative therapies may include stretching exercises to strengthen toe muscles and prevent further development of muscle imbalances, as well as “buddy taping” or splinting the bent toe back into a more natural position. We highly recommend a pair of comfortable, roomy shoes that accommodate your toe shape and minimize uncomfortable friction. Other smart options may include pressure-relieving toe pads, orthotics to help correct foot structure problems and help you walk more comfortably, or other solutions based on your specific condition.
Exploring Surgery for Hammertoes
If the joints are rigid and painful, complications are frequent, or you’ve tried conservative therapies without much success, it may be a sign that surgery is your best bet.
Hammertoe surgery is performed on an outpatient basis at our office; no hospital stay is necessary, and you can go home the same day. Flexible joints or less serious cases may only require releasing tight tendons that prevent your toe from lying flat; more commonly, a bone may need to be cut or have its end portion removed so that it can be properly realigned.
Some discomfort and swelling for a few weeks after surgery is normal, and you’ll have a list of instructions you’ll need to follow for your recuperation. It will take a little time, but surgery is highly successful on average and most people report it’s well worth the return of getting a healthy step back.
Help for Your Bent Toes in New Jersey
Associates in Podiatry is proud to provide comprehensive, compassionate care for various toe deformities, and we commonly provide conservative and surgical management. The choice of approach is made in cooperation between doctor and patient—we’ll offer our recommendations honestly, but we don’t push people into surgery—and our ultimate goal is to do what’s right for you.
If you have a troublesome hammertoe, don’t wait until the problem gets out of hand. The sooner you seek help the more options you have on the table for successful treatment. You can request an appointment online, or call our offices in Princeton at 609-924-8333 or Roselle Park at 908-687-5757.