A hammer toe is a potentially painful deformity of the second, third, or fourth toes, where the toe bends upward at the joint, resembling a hammer.

When a hammer toe causes pain, and other treatments fail, surgery may be the only option for correcting the joint.

Contents of this article:

What is hammer toe?

Hammer toe on both feet
Hammer toe is when the toe bends upwards at the joint.

A hammer toe causes the toe to bend at the first joint, which is called the proximal interphalangeal joint. The problem usually begins with a muscle imbalance.

When a muscle gets too weak, it can put pressure on the tendons of the toe. This can eventually cause the joint to become deformed. People with hammer toe may also develop corns or calluses at the top of the joint from the toe rubbing on poorly fitted shoes.

Wearing ill-fitting or pointy-toed shoes is one of the most common causes of a hammer toe. High heels can also cause the condition, because the heel pushes the front of the foot down, forward, and against the shoe. Over time, the toe muscles grow weaker and are no longer able to straighten the toe.

Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing hammer toe. People with unusually long toe bones, a history of toe injuries, and rheumatoid arthritis are more at risk of developing hammer toe.

The type of hammer toe determines treatment options. There are two distinct types:

Flexible hammer toe

In the early stages, the joint is still movable. It is possible to treat flexible hammer toe without surgery, often by simply switching to better shoes.

A person can reduce the symptoms of a flexible hammer toe by avoiding high heels and wearing loose shoes that are at least a half-inch longer than the longest toe.

Toe-strengthening exercises, such as picking items up off the floor with the toes, may also help. Ice packs to reduce pain and swelling can help with pain and inflammation. A doctor may also recommend putting a pad over the joint to prevent it from rubbing against shoes.

Rigid hammer toe

A rigid hammer toe means the joint is no longer movable. Home treatment and better shoes may offer temporary relief from the pain, and a doctor may recommend trying a custom orthotic device before surgery. If that fails, surgery might be the only option.

Types of hammer toe surgery

surgeons gloves
Surgery for hammer toe may be recommended when there is no other underlying condition.

Hammer toe surgery can be highly effective in people for whom the primary or only issue is hammer toe.

But when an underlying condition such as rheumatoid arthritis causes a hammer toe, doctors may recommend treating that condition first.

Surgical options for hammer toe include:

Tendon transfer

A tendon transfer pulls the toe into the correct position and often works well for a flexible hammer toe.

Tendons attach muscle to bone. During a tendon transfer, the surgeon pulls a tendon near the hammer toe across the top of the…