Straight Talk About Hammertoe

Medically Reviewed

Hammertoe is a painful foot deformity in which a toe bends unnaturally and becomes clawlike. This malformation occurs because the toe’s tendons contract abnormally, forcing the toe to bend downward and the middle joint of the toe to protrude upward.

Hammertoe usually affects one of the three middle toes, which curve into a hammer-shaped position and can eventually get painful and interfere with walking.

As long as hammertoe causes no pain or any change in your walking or running gait, it isn’t harmful and doesn’t require treatment.

Seek medical attention if the toe becomes painful and you have difficulty walking. The condition is usually irreversible without surgery, but its progress may be slowed. Hammertoes are a particular problem for people with diabetes because the greater pressure on the foot can increase the development of foot ulcers.

What to do

Switch to low-heeled shoes that have a soft, roomy toe area and wear sandals (but not flip-flops) when possible. Insoles may also provide some comfort.

A physical therapist can provide recommendations and devices to help retrain the toes that still have some flexibility; in some cases, the toes may be splinted.

For hammertoes that cause extreme discomfort, surgery is an option, though it may involve a long recuperation—four to six weeks—depending on the severity of the condition. Stiffness, redness, and swelling can last for weeks and even months.

During your recovery, you’ll have to avoid most physical activity, which may sometimes include standing and walking.

You may need to use crutches or a walker, and if the surgery was done on your right foot, you might not be able to drive while you heal. What’s more, surgery isn’t a guarantee that the hammertoe won’t return.

"Common Foot Problems" was first published on Berkeley Wellness.