Hammer toe is a deformity in the middle joint of the toe. It is similar to mallet toe, which occurs in the joint nearest the toenail. Both conditions arise from an imbalance in the toe’s soft tissues. Hammer toe can cause pain and swelling, and may contribute to the development of blisters and calluses. Luckily, there are many ways to treat hammer toe at home. Read on to learn more.
What is Hammer Toe?
Hammer toe is an abnormal bend in the middle joint of the toe. The second, third, and fourth toes are most commonly affected by hammer toe. Big toes are less commonly affected. This toe deformity happens when the muscles, ligaments, or tendons in the toe become tight and out of balance. This causes the toe to take on an abnormal, crooked appearance as the joint lifts upward.
In mild to moderate cases, the toe remains flexible. You may be able to straighten it if you press down on the affected joint. But severe or untreated hammer toes become rigid. You will be unable to move the joint out of its crooked position. Several factors contribute to the development of hammer toe, including injury, your choice of shoes, and the structure of your feet.
In cases of claw toe, the toe digs down into the sole of the shoe. Over time, the toe becomes rigid and may become permanently deformed. It can also cause calluses to develop on the toe and other areas of the foot.
Learn more about claw toe, mallet toe, and curly toe in our post on crooked toe conditions.
What Causes Hammer Toe?
Hammer toe occurs when the soft tissues in the toe become too tight or get injured. The most common hammer toe causes are:
Shoes that have a tight toe box, such as high heels or pointed flats, crowd the toes. Crowded toes are unable to lie flat, increasing the risk that the joint will become bent out of shape. Continuously wearing tight shoes will cause the toes to curl even in bare feet.
If you jam or stub your toes, you are at increased risk of hammer toe. That’s because the injury can damage the tissues at the joint and throw them out of alignment. People who have previously broken a toe are also at risk of hammer toe, even after the fracture heals.
An abnormal balance in the toe muscles causes instability in the toe. It puts you at greater risk of hammer toe and other types of foot and toe injuries.
Although anyone can develop hammer toe, the following factors significantly increase your risk of the condition:
- Older adults are more likely than younger people to get hammer toe and other crooked toe conditions. This is because the muscles in the body, including the feet, weaken with age.
- Women are more likely than men to develop hammer toe because they tend to wear shoes with tighter toe boxes.
- Toe length. The risk of hammer toe increases if your second toe is longer than your big toe. Heredity may play a role in toe length.
- Having other illnesses. People with arthritis, diabetes, and other conditions that affect the feet are more likely to develop toe deformities.
Hammer Toe Symptoms
The most common symptom of hammer toe is a bend in the middle joint of one of your toes, typically the middle three toes. In the early stages, you will likely be able to temporarily straighten the toe by pressing on the bend. Unless you seek treatment, eventually the toe will remain rigid, even if you press it.
Other symptoms of hammer toe include:
- Pain or inflammation around the crooked joint
- Increase in pain when wearing shoes, especially tight shoes or high heels
- Difficulty moving the affected toe
- Redness at the injured joint
- Stiff or rigid middle toe joints
- Blisters or calluses on the toes or other areas of the feet
Typically, a doctor can diagnose hammer toe by carrying out a visual inspection. They may press down on the toe to see how rigid the joint is and to check for your pain response. The doctor may also inspect other areas of the foot for blisters and calluses.
To rule out other conditions, such as a fracture, your doctor may order a hammer toe X-ray of your foot to check the bones and joints.
Hammer Toe Treatment
For toes that are still flexible, the best hammer and mallet toe treatments involve home remedies such as orthotics, changes in footwear, and exercises to stretch and strengthen toe muscles.
If these hammer toe remedies don’t work, or you have a severe toe deformity, you may need surgery. The most effective treatment options include:
A hammer toe splint is the easiest way to relieve chronic toe pain. ( See Product )
Wearing a hammer toe brace or splint can relieve pain, reduce swelling, and prevent friction and irritation. This is a non-invasive treatment that fits comfortably inside your shoe to provide discreet relief. We recommend this universal-fit hammer toe splint.
Hammer Toe Taping and Sleeves
If you have painful sores or chafing, toe sleeves are a quick slip-on solution to provide relief. ( See Product )
To stop your toe from curling up, try taping it to an adjacent toe. If you’re unsure of how to do this, ask your doctor or physical therapist for tips. And to prevent calluses and blisters, protect your injured toes with these soft toe sleeves.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your feet is to choose your footwear wisely. To select the best shoes for hammer toes:
- Go shopping at the end of the day, as feet swell in the evening.
- Have the store assistant check your size, as it can change with age. Make sure they measure both feet. Choose shoes in the size of the larger foot.
- Select shoes with low heels to stop your feet from slipping forward.
- Look for shoes made with flexible materials around the toes and on the soles.
- Make sure you have enough toe room and avoid pointed shoes. There should be a half-inch of space between your longest toe and the inside of the shoe.
- Opt for adjustable features, such as laces or Velcro straps. These allow you to adjust your shoe size as the day wears on.
For fast hammer toe relief, wear padded shoe inserts. Padded inserts distribute pressure evenly throughout the foot. They support the feet, toes, ankles, hips, back, and more.
When it comes to insoles, gel padding is the perfect way to protect painful sores. ( See Product )
Wearing comfortable gel inserts will also stretch out the ligaments, muscles, and tendons of the toes to relieve pain and bring down swelling. What’s more, they cushion the foot to reduce the formation of blisters, corns, and calluses.
At the end of a long day on your feet, or following a high-impact activity such as running, take the time to stretch out and separate your toes. This simple action can maintain proper muscle alignment to prevent many deformities.
Try toe separators to correct hammer toes and other misalignments. ( See Product )
When choosing the best hammer toe straighteners, do your homework. Decide what product best suits your condition. You can find toe separators, straighteners, and spacers in single-toe, double-toe, or triple-toe varieties. They are available online or in stores.
Ring toe separators are another comfortable way to manage misaligned toes. ( See Product )
For treating hammer toe, we recommend these toe separators or these ring toe spacers.
An ice pack is a great fix-all solution for aches and pains of all kinds. ( See Product )
To stop swelling and provide quick relief from pain, apply an ice pack to sore feet and toes. Simply wrap some ice in a thin cloth and place it on the sore toe for fifteen minutes. You can repeat this treatment several times daily, as needed.
Never put ice directly on the skin as it can burn. For added safety and convenience, try a gel ice pack.
If you have a lot of pain or swelling, you may benefit from certain pain-relieving medications, such as:
- Acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin IB)
- Naproxen sodium (e.g. Aleve)
Avoid taking these long-term, unless your doctor advises you to. Pain medications are best taken as a short-term remedy until other treatment options kick in.
Relieve stiffness and pain with specific toe exercises. These help to stretch and strengthen the muscles in the toe joint, which can reverse or prevent soft tissue damage. Physical therapy and massage can also help.
If you have severe hammer toe, you may need to work with a physical therapist who can develop a more comprehensive exercise program to meet your needs.
If pain persists despite using other treatments, or you cannot comfortably wear shoes on a daily basis, then you may require hammer toe surgery.
For cases of flexible hammer toe, a surgeon may transfer the tendons so that the toe moves into a straight position. For fixed hammer toe, the surgeon may cut ligaments or tendons to straighten the toe. They may also need to remove the end of the bone to allow the toe to straighten out. Pins will hold your toe in place for up to four weeks after the procedure.
Try crutches to take the weight off your painful toes and find relief. ( See Product )
After hammer toe surgery, recovery takes a few weeks. You will need to wear special shoes to aid walking, and you will likely need a pair of crutches to help you move around.
Most people with a hammer toe deformity can manage their symptoms through home remedies, lifestyle changes, and medications. However, if you do not attempt any form of hammer toe correction, the condition will get worse over time. Eventually, your toe will feature a permanent bend and become painful and irritating. It will also increase your risk of other toe and foot injuries.
For the best chance of recovery, seek early treatment and be diligent about looking after your feet.
How to Prevent Hammer Toe
As always, prevention is better than the cure. To prevent hammer toe from developing in the first instance, try the following:
- Choose well-fitting shoes, based on the tips we provided above.
- Maintain a healthy weight to avoid putting excess pressure on the feet and toes.
- Use toe separators and spacers after running or other activities that strain the feet.
- Go barefoot or wear open-toe shoes when possible.
- Wear shoe inserts to evenly distribute pressure throughout the foot.
Dealing with Hammer Toes
Don’t suffer in silence with hammer toe pain. See your doctor who can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan. In addition to medical treatments, you can try home remedies and lifestyle changes for toe deformities. Some of the best options include hammer toe orthotics such as inserts, splints, sleeves, and spacers. Exercises are also important to relieve pain and reverse crooked toes.
Finally, don’t forget to choose the right shoes. Wearing good-quality and well-fitting footwear prevents and alleviates hammer toe, along with many other common foot problems.