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Overlapping Toes Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT April 26, 2017 0 Comments

Toe Pain

Seventy-five percent of Americans experience foot problems in their lifetime, according to the Illinois Podiatric Medical Association. Many of these foot conditions, including corns, bunions, and hammertoes, often have one thing in common: overlapping toes.

Painful at the very least, an overlapping toe extends over (or under in the case of an underlapping toe) an adjacent toe. This common condition usually leads to foot and toe pain, discomfort, and irritation.

What causes an overlapping toe and what can you do to prevent or fix the problem?

What are Overlapping Toes?

An overlapping toe condition occurs when one of your toes, usually the big toe or pinky toe, extends over the adjacent toe. A similar condition, called an underlapping toe, develops when your toe extends under the adjacent toe.

Overlapping Pinky Toe 

Referring to the overlapping of your pinky, or fifth toe, this is typically the most common scenario and is often a result of tight shoes smushing the outside toe against the others.

Overlapping Big Toe

Another super common condition that is also typically caused or aggravated by tight shoes.  Initially, friction from the shoe will cause a bunion to form, taking away space from the second toe and, in turn, causing the big toe to overlap.

Underlapping Toes

Similar to overlapping toes, this condition usually occurs with toes three, four, and five. These toes tend to move underneath the others. It is thought to be caused by unbalanced muscle strength within the smaller muscles of your foot, but the exact cause is still unknown.

What Causes Overlapping Toes

Determining the cause of an overlapping toe condition can help you determine the best way to correct the condition and prevent it from recurring once corrected. The cause of an overlapping toe usually boils down to a few common causes:

  • Wearing shoes that are too tight.
  • A condition such as a hammertoe or bunion.
  • Your genetics.
  • Imbalances in other areas of the body, such as the ankle. 

Improperly Fitting Footwear

Improperly fitting footwear that is either too tight or doesn't provide enough flex can cause your toes to overlap. The restrictive nature of a too-tight shoe crams your toes together, giving them little room to flex as needed.

When wearing a properly fitting shoe, your toes should flex naturally as you walk, run, or jump.

Women, especially, can suffer from the effects of an overlapping toe if they wear narrow, high heels or other cramped shoe styles in the name of fashion. The narrowness and angle of these types of shoes promotes the formation of bunions and other foot related issues.

Hammertoes and Bunions

Hammertoes often form due to an imbalance in the muscle of your foot caused by an irregular stride. A hammertoe is when one of your toe joints rests in a bent position. You can develop a hammertoe condition regardless of age or sex, although sometimes hammertoes are genetic in nature.

More on Hammertoes

A bunion can form due to arthritis, wearing shoes that are too narrow, poor movement mechanics, or genetics. Bunions, sometimes painful in nature, happen when the big toe is pushed toward the second toe. While initially a bunion might not present a problem, eventually the bunion can cause the toe to overlap, causing more serious and painful issues later on.

More on Bunions


Some other causes of an overlapping toe include conditions extending from your genetics. This is most often in the form of Morton’s toe, also known as an unusually long second toe. Other causes linked to genetics include stiff tendons and flat feet.


Outside of genetics and footwear, stiffness in the ankles, knees, or even the hips can put strain on the toes and cause misalignment issues like overlapping. Particularly when the ankle is stiff with dorsiflexion, it can lead to a walking pattern that puts direct pressure on the big toe and can lead to issues like bunions, hammer toes, plantar fasciitis, and other foot problems. 

What Problems Do Overlapping Toes Cause?

Pain & Irritation

The biggest symptom of an overlapping toe is the pain that often occurs from the condition. The pain is also most often accompanied by inflammation of the toes and irritation caused by the toes rubbing together or rubbing against the side of the surrounding shoe. Additionally, the larger proximal joint of the big toe is at a higher risk of strain of local ligaments and excessive rubbing (causing blisters) from shoes.


If you have overlapping toes, you can also develop corns, or calluses,  on your feet. The corns develop due to friction between the toes, mostly on the knuckle area of the toe or the outside of the outer toes.

Natural Gait

The pain caused by overlapping toes may cause you to compensate your gait.  Naturally. you'll walk to avoid the pain which over time can compromise the way you walk.  This can later lead to other problems or even exacerbate the issue.

Talking to Your Doctor About Overlapping

You may need to visit the podiatrist to determine the extent of your overlapping toe problem. The podiatry doctor will ask you questions, examine your feet, and take x-rays (or other types of imaging, like an MRI)  if needed. Ultimately, the podiatrist will recommend a treatment option which typically involves orthotics/splints, surgery, physical therapy to address imbalances, or a mix of all three.

Although avoiding surgery is ideal, it can fix most overlapping toe problems, and as long as you wear the appropriately sized footwear with a proper toe box going forward (and move correctly), you should not have any further problems.

Start Fixing Your Overlapping Toes

Diagnosing and correcting an overlapping toe can help you reduce any pain from the condition. Hopefully, you can avoid surgery by taking precautionary measures, utilizing products for overlapping toes, moving with attention to your lower body biomechanics, and wearing appropriate shoes. Continue through our guide for more tips on treatment including how to use toe separators, toe straighteners, taping,  and shoe inserts for addressing your toe abnormalities.

Even if surgery is needed, fixing an overlapping toe is relatively easy, although it does require some recovery time. Talk with your podiatrist about which option is best for you and you’ll be on your way to pain-free feet.


Arthritis in Foot Products


Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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