Even though our feet and toes carry the weight of our whole body, day in and day out, they are often sorely neglected. Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans have experienced foot pain, which includes problems with the toes. Crooked toes take several different forms and the most common include hammertoe, bunions, and overlapping toes. Keep reading to learn how to spot toe deformities in your feet and to discover how to fix crooked toes once and for all.
There are several types of crooked toe syndromes. Some of the most common are listed below.
Without proper treatment, hammertoe can seriously impact your mobility. ( Image Reference)
Hammertoe is characterized by an abnormal bend in the middle joint of the toe, causing the second knuckle of the toe to lift upward. It usually occurs in the middle three toes.
This condition is caused by tightening of or damage to the muscles, tendons, or ligaments that are responsible for keeping the toes straight.
Sometimes the afflicted toe remains flexible and can be straightened by pressing down on the buckled area. In severe cases, or if left untreated, the toe becomes rigid and can no longer be moved.
Mallet toe is often caused by high heels or tight shoes. ( Image Reference)
Like hammertoe, mallet toe is caused by changes in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the toe and typically occurs in the second, third, and fourth toes.
However, mallet toe affects the joint nearest the toenail, causing it to bend the tip of the toe downward while the rest of the toe remains straight. It can be caused by high shoes or restrictive footwear.
Claw toe is painful and can lead to permanent disfigurement if untreated. ( Image Reference)
Claw toe causes the affected toe to dig down into the sole of the shoe, which can lead to painful calluses.
If left untreated, claw toe may become more rigid, even developing into a permanent deformity.
Curly toe is most common in children and should be addressed early to prevent lifelong issues. ( Image Reference)
When the end of the toe flexes and curls to one side, it is known as curly toe. This condition typically occurs in the third and fourth toes and seems to have a genetic component.
Curly toe is common in babies and children, but 25% of cases correct naturally, without any intervention, before the age of six.
However, if the rest of the cases are not treated, curly toe may persist throughout life. It can cause calluses, blisters, or nail deformity due to pressure from shoes.
Bunions are most common in women and those with arthritis and are typically treated with bunion splints. ( Image Reference)
Bunions are painful bony lumps that occur at the big toe joint, on the inside of the foot. They are caused by pressure on the big toe joint, causing a crooked big toe turned outward, toward the second toe.
This condition develops slowly, as the bone structure changes gradually to form the characteristic bump. Bunions cause pain and difficulty walking or wearing shoes, and the skin around the bump may redden.
Bunions are most common in women, thanks to narrow shoes that squeeze the toes together. However, inherited structural defects or arthritis can also contribute to bunion formation.
Smaller bunions, called bunionettes, can develop on the joints of the little toes. A bunion splint is often used to treat this condition.
Overlapping and Underlapping Toes
Overlapping toes create painful sores, blisters, and calluses and can be caused by tight shoes or genetics. ( Image Reference)
If one of your toes is on top of the one beside it, you may have a case of overlapping toes. The most commonly affected toes are the second and fifth toes.
Overlapping toes can cause sores to develop, thanks to friction on the inside of the shoe.
An underlapping toe, or adductovarus toe, happens when a crooked toe moves under the toe next to it. It generally happens with the fourth and fifth toes.
These conditions can be caused by restrictive shoes, but are also the result of inherited deformities, which affect both men and women equally.
The factors that contribute to the development of crooked toes are varied. Here are a few of the most common:
Choosing the wrong footwear for foot health is the most common cause of a crooked toe.
Shoes with elevated heels, rigid soles, and restrictive toe space (pointy-toed shoes) all contribute to crooked toe conditions. "Toe spring" shoes—the front of the shoe curves upwards, as in some athletic shoes—may also cause issues.
These types of shoes cause the toes to become cramped and encourage muscle or tendon strain and imbalance.
Injuries to the foot, particularly where toes are stubbed or broken, can lead to the development of crooked toe conditions.
Activities that place repetitive stress on the feet, such as ballet, also increase the risk of developing a crooked toe.
Fractured bones that heal in the wrong position can cause muscle and tendon imbalance.
Some crooked toes can result from nerve damage caused by conditions like diabetes or alcohol abuse, which can weaken the foot muscles.
This nerve damage (neuropathy) leads to loss of sensation, meaning that a painful or injured toe may go unnoticed and untreated, which can set the stage for crooked toe development.
Arthritis, inflammatory joint disease, and neuromuscular disorders like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis also increase the risk of developing foot deformities.
Genetics and Birth Defects
Crooked toe conditions may develop due to an inherited structural foot defect or birth defect, as is the case with many incidences of overlapping toes, underlapping toes, and curly toes.
Factors that increase the risk of crooked toe conditions include:
Age. The risk of certain crooked toe conditions—including hammertoe, claw toe, and mallet toe—increases with age.
Gender. Because women tend to wear more restrictive footwear than men, they are naturally more prone to certain crooked toe conditions—particularly bunions, hammertoe, and mallet toe.
Toe length. The risk of developing some crooked toe conditions is increased if your second toe is longer than your big toe.
Symptoms of Crooked Toes
The signs and symptoms of crooked toe conditions vary based on the type of crooked toe you have. However, some general warning signs to look out for include:
Bent, raised, or otherwise misshapen toes
Tenderness, irritation, or pain around a toe or toes
Increase in pain when wearing shoes
Redness of the skin
Inflammation or swelling
Blisters, corns, calluses, or other open sores on the toes or feet
Shortening of a toe or toes
Stiffness or rigidity of the toe joints
How to Fix Crooked Toes
Crooked toes can get more painful and rigid over time, so it’s best to begin crooked toe treatment without delay!
There are a number of treatment options available—ranging from simple footwear changes to surgical procedures—to help you fix your crooked toe condition.
Prevention is always better than the cure, and preventing crooked toe development or progression can be as simple as choosing different footwear and using a good pair of insoles.
When possible, go barefoot or wear supportive open-toed shoes.
Tips for Choosing Shoes for Crooked Toes
Look for low heels. High heels put added pressure on the muscles and joints of the feet and toes, and they are notorious for causing back problems.
Ensure adequate toe space. A wide toe box or open-toed shoes allow the toes some wiggle room. Avoid shoes with pointed toes.
Material matters. Flexible material around the toes, and on the soles, will prevent foot troubles.
Choose laces and straps. These features mean the shoe width can be adjusted, allowing more toe space if necessary.
Check sizes. As we age, our foot size changes, particularly in width. It’s not uncommon for our feet to be two different sizes. Have both your feet measured regularly, and choose shoes based on the size of the larger foot. Ensure a half-inch of space between your longest toe and the inside of the shoe.
Shop in the evening. Always try on shoes at the end of the day, as our feet tend to swell after a day of activity.
Physical Therapy and Stretches
Physical therapy, massage, toe joint manipulation, and gentle stretches all provide relief from pain and stiffness and straighten crooked toes.
Exercises such as picking up marbles or crumpling a towel with the toes can help stretch and strengthen the toe muscles.
As there are a variety of crooked toe conditions, which vary in symptoms and severity, it’s best to discuss your treatment options with a podiatrist, chiropodist, or physical therapist.
A bunion protector is a simple, cost-effective way to treat bunions. ( See Product)
An orthotic device is any kind of foot pad, toe support, or shoe insert that maintains a neutral position for the feet and toes, aiding healing and providing pain relief.
Orthotics help straighten crooked toes and provide support to the muscles and tendons.
These products are great for people with crooked toe conditions, particularly as they are usually:
Inexpensive, especially when compared to the cost of surgery
Washable and reusable
Orthotic devices available to treat crooked toe include:
Toe Separators, Straighteners, and Spacers
Toe separators are helpful in treating a variety of crooked toe conditions. ( See Product)
These devices separate the toes while maintaining alignment. Toe separators, straighteners, and spacers can be bought over the counter or online, or can be custom made.
Many of these products are made to address specific toe conditions, so it is important to choose based on the type of crooked toe you have.
They are also made to treat the number of toes affected and come in single-toe, double-toe, or triple-toe varieties. When purchasing, check if the product is made for the left foot, right foot, or both.
Toe Loops and Bandages
Toe loops keep your toes in the correct alignment, which is crucial for proper healing. ( See Product)
By securing your afflicted toe to the next toe using a toe loop or bandage, you will help keep it in place, provide extra support, and maintain proper alignment.
These products tend to be less effective than toe separators and spacers, but can be more comfortable to wear, especially while walking.
Foot Cushions and Pads
Foot cushions are comfortable, reduce symptoms, and prevent further damage for crooked toe conditions. ( See Product)
Padded shoe inserts help stretch your toes out and relieve the pain caused by tight tendons and ligaments. They also distribute pressure evenly throughout the foot, reducing symptoms and preventing progression of conditions like hammertoe and bunions.
Other types of pads, protectors, and foot cushions help prevent or relieve the pain of blisters, corns, and calluses.
Applying an ice pack to the painful or swollen areas of the foot can relieve soreness and inflammation naturally.
Certain medications may kill pain in the short term, to provide relief until longer-term treatment methods begin to take effect. These medications include:
Acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol)
Ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin IB)
Naproxen sodium (e.g. Aleve)
Cortisone injections may also be helpful for some crooked toe conditions, such as bunions.
Crooked Toes Surgery
Although there are plenty of ways to correct crooked toes without surgery, some people with severe cases of crooked toe may require surgical intervention.
Surgery can help release any tendons that are preventing your toes from maintaining their natural shape. It may be necessary for the surgeon to remove a piece of bone from your toe to help straighten it. Pins or wires may be used to keep your toe in the correct position during healing.
While surgery can be helpful for many people, for others it may simply be a quick fix. Unless the underlying cause of crooked toe is rectified in these cases—such as by choosing appropriate footwear or reducing repetitive strain on the foot—crooked toe conditions could return.
When to See a Doctor
Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests that lesser toe deformities can be symptoms of other conditions, so early assessment and treatment is important.
Visit a podiatrist or your family doctor if you notice any of the symptoms of crooked toes. Together, you and your doctor can create a treatment plan that’s right for you
Putting your Best Foot Forward
Crooked toes are a common and painful condition that can easily be treated with orthotic devices, massage, exercise, and surgical interventions.
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