A hammertoe is a toe that is abnormally bent, usually the second or third toe, although it can happen to any toe at all. This usually occurs because of a muscle/tendon imbalance, although ill-fitting shoes can exacerbate and speed up the formation of hammertoes. A hammertoe usually starts out as a mild abnormality, but if left untreated, they will always get progressively worse.
There are a number of factors that can make you more likely to develop hammertoes. Genetics can play a role, as though with arches that are either too flat or too high are much more likely to develop the condition as the foot attempts to compensate for the change in balance.
Arch support is also a factor in the shoes we wear, as many of the shoes available on the market do not provide proper arch support. Adding to this is the fact that many women’s shoes require the wearer to cram their feet into narrow spaces, which puts a lot of pressure on the joints in the toes.
The first step in preventing hammertoe is making sure you have the right shoes. Although the leading cause of hammertoes is an imbalance with the muscles and tendons, where weak muscles put more pressure on the tendons, this effect can be exaggerated by improper footwear. When buying shoes, you should look at 3 things: size, arch support, and cushioning. Since our feet swell as we go about our day, it is best to buy new shoes in the afternoon, to avoid choosing shoes that fit in the morning but are constraining by the afternoon. Then make sure the shoes in question have adequate arch support and cushioning. To learn more about this, see our blog on finding the right shoe for your foot type.
Keeping the toes flexible and strong is one of the most effective ways of preventing or treating hammertoe. Fortunately, there are a number of very easy stretches you can do at home to achieve this. One is to pick up marbles with your toes and drop them one by one into a cup. Another option is to put a towel on the floor, clench it with your toes, and pick it up with your legs straight. Both of these can be done while sitting down to work, or watch TV.
Another stretch you can do involves looking at where the toe in question bends, and gently bending it in the other direction. You should feel nothing more than a gentle tug, and should hold the stretch for a few seconds. Do this 5 to 10 times, several times a day, to counteract any muscle/tendon imbalances.
A hammertoe is a condition that sets in gradually, and will heal gradually as well. Treating it may take time, but can prevent a lot of pain and discomfort. If caught in the early stages, hammertoe should be relatively straightforwar to treat. But if it is allowed to continue developing, it can get more complicated, so pay attention to the toes, monitor if the situation is getting better or worse, and seek professional advice if you do not see or feel any improvement.