We may not think much about our feet until something goes wrong. And for many people putting on shoes or walking can be uncomfortable, if not painful. Hammertoe is one of those conditions.
Hammertoe got its name for a reason. It’s used to describe a deformity where the toes of the foot can become bent like a claw.
“Hammertoe is when your toes curl up, and that’s an imbalance between the tendons, the bones, and the structures of the foot,” says Dr. Andrew Belis, a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon on Lee Memorial Health System's medical staff.
The condition can appear in any of the toes.
“For instance, in the central toes, the second, third, and fourth, you can get the toes pulling straight up in the air. On the little toes, the fourth and the fifth toes, sometimes it curls in,” says Dr. Belis.
The deformity may be inherited, the result of arthritis, or linked to poor-fitting shoes. Women are more likely to have it than men. If caught early, doctors can intervene to keep hammertoes from getting worse.
“Stretching out the tight ones, strengthening the loose ones in the lower extremity, that can actually help to slow down that process a little bit,” says Dr. Belis.
In some cases, surgery is needed to help stretch the tendons.
“Sometimes we do small, little percutaneous techniques where we just lengthen the tendon. A little puncture incision through the skin and that helps the toe to sit straight,” says Dr. Belis.
The longer the toes have been in an unnatural position, the harder it is to straighten them. Advanced cases can require surgery to correct the bone structure.
“There are some newer techniques with that. Sometimes we’re using absorbable pins that hold the toes in place, as opposed to the old fashioned pins sticking out of the tips of the toes,” says Dr. Belis.
Modern treatments are less invasive and offer a minimum of pain, so doctors are able to help most hammertoe patients put their best foot forward.