Symptom Checker

Where is your pain?

Check Now

Make an appointment

Hammer Toe

What Is A Hammer Toe?

Hammer toe is the commonest type of lesser toe deformity.

Before describing the deformity, you may wish to read about the normal anatomy of the lesser toes here.


In a hammer toe the normal anatomy is distorted.

There is flexion of the PIP joint, with an extension deformity at DIP and MTP joint. With severe deformity the toe can also be dislocated at the MTP joint.

Hammer toe deformity

Hammer toe deformity

In the early stages of the condition the toe may still remain flexible and the deformity correctible on passive manipulation of the toe. As the condition progresses the deformity becomes fixed.

Hammer toe deformity in both 2nd and 3rd toes

Hammer toe deformity in both 2nd and 3rd toes

It is most common in elderly females and affects usually the second toe. It can however affect male and female of any age. It often is associated with a bunion deformity.

Hammer toe deformity in a patient with a bunion

Hammer toe deformity in a patient with a bunion

 

What Can Cause It?

A number of mechanisms have been implicated in the formation of hammer toe deformity. As with claw toe deformity there is an imbalance in the muscles that control toe movement. The powerful extrinsic muscles (in the leg) that straighten (extensor) and bend (flexor) the toe are not balanced by the intrinsic muscles (in the foot) which are too weak or under active.

Wearing tight shoes and high heels may be a risk factor. Having a long 2nd metatarsal may alter the normal foot biomechanics causing 2nd MTP joint overload with synovitis (inflammation of the joint) and subsequent joint deformity. Hammer toe is also associated with rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. Wearing shoes that are too short for the toes in particular a long 2nd toe, high heels and a narrow toe box resulting in crowding of the toes can also be a risk factor for developing hammer toe deformity.

Problems with the big toe such as a bunion (Hallux Valgus) or 1st MTP joint arthritis (Hallux Rigidus) are also associated with 2nd MTP joint overload and subsequent instability which can result in a hammer toe deformity. This occurs in the latter two because the big toe joint (1st MTP) does not work properly. In a normal foot the 1st MTP joint takes roughly 40-50% of the load as you walk. This load is transferred to the 2nd MTP joint and to varying degrees the other lesser toes. As the 2nd toe joint is not designed to take this load, damage can occur at the 2nd MTP joint with synovitis initially. There then follows joint capsule distension, plantar plate and collateral ligament attenuation. Please read about 2nd metatarsal instability for more details.

Tight calf muscles (gastrocnemius) are not known to cause hammer toe deformity, however we mention it as it can exacerbate the problem. Tight calf muscles result in an increase load across the front of the foot, this puts more strain on already damaged structures such as the plantar plate ligament. Addressing calf tightness is important in the treatment of hammer toe.

In summary the following are associated with the development of a hammer toe deformity:

What Are The Symptoms?

Pain is the main symptoms. It can arise due to a number of reasons:

  • Loss of lesser toe load sharing (in late stance phase of the gait cycle)
  • MTP joint synovitis
  • Downward pressure by toe on metatarsal head (plunger effect described by Stainsby)
  • On the top of the toes as they rub against the shoes (typically the PIP joint)
  • On the tips of the toes due to increased pressure over a small area
  • At the MTP joints as they become subluxed or dislocated
  • Metatarsalgia

Pain is by far the commonest symptom of hammer toe deformity. Pain may be felt in the “ball” of the toe (MTP joint), on the plantar (sole) aspect of the foot. Pain may also be felt across the dorsum (top) of the foot at the MTP joint. People with hammer toe may also have corns or calluses on the top of the middle joint (PIP) of the toe or on the tip of the toe where there is rubbing or pressure against shoes. They may also feel generalised pain in their toes or feet and have difficulty finding comfortable shoes.

Rubbing against shoes often causes pain in the second toe and breakdown of the skin (ulcer formation)

Rubbing against shoes often causes pain in the second toe and breakdown of the skin (ulcer formation)

Thickening of the skin (callosity) under the MTP joint is typically a manifestation of increased load and forces going through the joint. The callosity maybe painful and attempts to remove it will be temporary as the skin will thicken again in response to the abnormal load.

Clinical picture of a focal callosity under the 2nd MTP joint and at the tip of the 3rd toe

Clinical picture of a focal callosity under the 2nd MTP joint and at the tip of the 3rd toe

What Investigations May Be Required?

Investigations are not necessary to make the diagnosis.

Radiographs will be arranged at your initial clinic consultation. These will help confirm the diagnosis, the severity of the deformity and aid in pre operative planning.

 

Radiograph demonstrating severe hammer toe deformity with dislocation at the MTP joint

Lateral foot radiograph (x-ray) demonstrating severe hammer toe deformity with dislocation at the MTP joint

Can The Problem Get Worse?

Hammer toe is a condition that can get worse over time.

The deformity can be flexible and passively correctible in the early stages but with time it can become fixed. The deformity can also increase and the toes finally dislocate at the MTP joints.

Complications include painful callosities and ulcers (a break in the skin) which can become infected.

Infected ulcer on the dorsum of the toe caused by rubbing against shoes

Infected ulcer on the dorsum of the toe caused by rubbing against shoes

A callosity

A painful callosity

Non-Operative Treatment Options

Non-operative management aims at relieving pain and limiting deformity progression. It is likely to be most effective in the early stages of the condition. It should always be the first line treatment. Options include:

Toe sleeves 

Made of silicon can be worn over the toe to protect from direct pressure and rubbing against footwear.


Taping/strapping

Position the toe in neutral alignment using cross over taping or toe straps. Provide stability to the joint and alleviate symptoms.  If the deformity is of recent onset, one can use pads over the corns.


Insoles & orthotics

A custom insole with plenty of padding can take some of the pressure off the joint and alleviate the pain. A metatarsal bar insole may also provide symptomatic relief.

Hammer toe splints are commercially available that can help maintain the toes in a corrected position.


Non steroidal anti-inflammatories

The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can decrease discomfort from an inflamed synovitic MTP joint.


Footwear

The use of stiff soled shoes that do not bend and therefore protect the MTP joint. Wearing a shoe with a wide and deep toe box.


Physiotherapy

Stretching tight calf muscles will help reduce the forces going across the forefoot. This will help reduce pain in the MTP joint.

Dynamic intrinsic muscle exercises. These exercises may limit the progression of claw toe deformity. For details regarding intrinsic foot muscle exercises please click here.

Operative Treatment Options

Surgical management is reserved for patients who have failed to respond to non operative treatment.

Patients should understand that the decision to undergo surgery should not be taken lightly.

Any intervention is considered in a step wise manner, with the least invasive procedure carried out first.

A variety of surgical options exist which need to be tailored to the individual and the stage of the disease. Often a combination of procedures is performed. Because the deformity results from a muscle imbalance, tendon transfer or lengthening may be needed in order to achieve a correction and minimise the risk of recurrence. When planning surgery it is important to note whether the deformity is fixed or flexible.

A bunion must be corrected prior to correction of the hammer toe deformity. The bunion can be thought of as the “cause” and the hammer toe the “effect”. Not correcting the bunion will most likely result in a less successful outcome or recurrence following surgery.


The most common procedures that may be used in combination with others include:

For flexible hammer toe deformity

  • FDL tenotomy – releasing a tight FDL
  • Extensor tendon lengthening (EDB & EDL) – Releasing these tight tendons allows the toe to return to a more normal position
  • MTP joint capsular release – Over time the joint capsule tightens up, releasing this allows the toe to return to a more normal position
  • FDL flexor to extensor tendon transfer (Girdlestone-Taylor procedure) – This procedure involves releasing one of the tendons that pulls the toe downwards (FDL) at the end of the toe. the tendon is then transferred to the top of the toe (dorsal aspect of the proximal phalanx and extensor hood). This procedure aims to convert one of the primary deforming forces that results in clawing of the toes into a corrective force. It is a technically more demanding operation and recovery is slightly longer as a result

For fixed hammer toe deformity

  • Extensor tendon lengthening (EDB & EDL)
  • MTP joint capsular release
  • FDL flexor to extensor tendon transfer (Girdlestone-Taylor procedure)
  • PIP joint fusion/arthroplasty – Bringing the toe down is not enough in a fixed deformity, the fixed bend at the PIP joint has to be corrected and this is done by removing some of the joint and fusing the toe in a corrected straightened position. It is not unusual for this joint not to fully heal with bone, but even a fibrous union (scar tissue) in a straight position will be effective in the majority of patients. The bones are held in place by a temporary metal wire (K-wire) which is removed at roughly 4-6 weeks.
  • Shortening Weil’s metatarsal osteotomies (all lesser toes) – By shortening the metatarsal bone the aim is to correct the imbalance in the soft tissues indirectly

Chronic Dislocation

  • May require transfixing the toe to the metatarsal with a K wire
  • In the presence of severe infection or uncorrectable deformity resulting in significant symptoms, rarely an amputation may be considered

Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS)


The aim of surgery is to correct the deformity, alleviate pain and return a patient to full function.

Before (left) and after (right) radiographs of a bunion and hammer toe deformity correction with temporary K-wire

Before (left) and after (right) radiographs of a bunion and hammer toe deformity correction with temporary K-wire

Hammer toe deformity being corrected using MIS technique

Hammer toe deformity being corrected using MIS technique

 

Before (left) and after (right) radiographs demonstrating a hammer deformity correction, note the 2nd toe is no longer elevated

Before (left) and after (right) radiographs demonstrating a hammer deformity correction, note the 2nd toe is no longer elevated

Potential Complications

It should be borne in mind that complications can result from a condition with or without surgery.


Potential complications of non-operative treatment include:

  • Worsening pain
  • Increasing deformity
  • Dislocation of the lesser toe
  • Lesser MTP joint arthritis
  • Formation of ulcers on the sole of the foot (plantar aspect of 2nd MTP joint)
  • Formation of ulcers across the top (dorsum) of the second toe as it rubs against the shoe
  • Infection of ulcers
Ulcer over the PIP joint in a patient with hammer toe deformity

Clinical photograph of an ulcer that developed over the PIP joint after a patient with hammer toe deformity opted for non operative treatment


Complications can occur as with any type of surgery. Please see Complications for more detailed explanation of post surgical complications.

Potential general complications of any operative treatment include:

  • Risks and complications of anaesthesia
  • Bleeding
  • Infection (superficial and deep)
  • Blood clots
  • In the case of an MIS procedure it maybe necessary to proceed to open surgery if during the operation it is felt that a better outcome will be achieved using an open technique
  • Failure to fully correct deformity (particularly if longstanding deformity)
  • Need for further surgery
  • Complex regional pain syndrome

Potential specific complications of operative treatment of hammer toes include:

  • Painful non union of the PIP joint
  • Recurrence of the deformity
    • Failure to fully correct the hammer toe deformity
    • Recurrence of the deformity over time – most likely due to plantar plate dysfunction
  • Malunion
    • It is not uncommon for the toe to heal in a position that may not be perfectly straight
    • Minor degrees of deformity will be mostly a cosmetic concern, which is why almost all orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeons discourage patients from having toe surgery if the underlying issue is cosmetic!
    • In the unlikely case that there is a severe malunion further surgery may be required
  • Floating toe
    • Complication of Weil’s osteotomy
    • As a result of the intrinsics migrating dorsal to the MTP joint axis and acting as a toe extensor
  • Stiffness of the MTP joint
  • Lesser MTP joint arthritis
  • Wound healing problems (particularly when correcting a chronic deformity the soft tissue can become contracted)
  • Compromise to the blood supply (particularly when correcting a chronic deformity the blood vessels can become contracted)
    • If the blood supply to the tip of the toe is lost the tissue will die and it may be necessary to amputate part, or all of the toe
    • This is a very small risk
  • Nerve injury to the toes causing numbness

Note – these complications are not exhaustive and are meant as a guide

Post Operative Period & Recovery

Please read the information regarding what to expect post surgery on this website.

Remember that below is a guide to recovery and that everyone heals at different rates and some people do take longer. Use this information to help you understand your condition, possible treatment and recovery. The timeframes given below are a minimum, it is important that you appreciate this when considering surgery as your healing and recovery may take longer.


Immediate post operative period

Almost all surgical procedures for hammer toe deformity will be undertaken as a day case.

You will have a bandage applied similar to this during the operation.

Post operative bandage of the foot

Post operative bandage of the foot

Please do not remove your bandages until you are seen by your surgeon Mr Malik at the two week post operative clinic appointment. You will also be provided with a stiff soled black post operative shoe. Please ensure you wear this whenever you are weight bearing.

Post operative stiff soled shoe

Post operative stiff soled shoe

For the first 48 hours you will be allowed to touch weight bear using two crutches. After 48hrs you can weight bear as tolerate. The physiotherapist will guide you after your operation and before your discharge from hospital with the use of crutches and mobilising.

For the first two weeks following your surgery please keep your foot elevated to the level of your heart for 95% of the time. It is recommended you stay at home during this period.

High elevation of the foot and ankle following an operation

High elevation of the foot and ankle

Naturally most people do not have a hospital bed at home. The same effect can be achieved by lying in a bed or lengthways on a sofa, with pillows behind your back and under your foot. You cannot have your leg elevated sitting in a chair. It is strongly advised that during the first two weeks you are house bound.

To minimise risk of infection keep the foot dry and cool. Avoid humid and hot environments. Keep the foot dry and when showering wear a Limbo bag.

To minimise the risk of blood clots please move your foot and ankle at regular intervals. Please ensure you are well hydrated. If you have a risk of blood clots please notify Mr Malik who may organise for you to have blood thinning injections as a precaution.


Two weeks post operatively

You will be reviewed at the clinic and your dressings removed. Your wound will be checked and your toe taped or strapped.

At this stage if the swelling has subsided sufficiently you will be advised to keep your foot in an elevated horizontal position (50-75% of the time). You will require to wear the special post operative shoe for another 4 weeks. Short trips can be made outside, within limits of pain and swelling.

Driving will be permitted for short trips if the left foot has been operated on and you drive an automatic. If the right foot has been operated on it will be at least 8 weeks before any driving is advisable.

Scar desensitisation should start as soon as the wound has completely healed. You can do this by massaging cream (E45 for example) into the scar and around the wound area.

Commence exercises of the lesser toes 3 weeks after surgery and continue for 3 months. These exercises included active resistive and passive toe flexion and extension. They also include intrinsic foot muscle strengthening exercises.


Six weeks post operatively

You will have radiographs taken just before you are seen in clinic. You will go over these with Mr Malik and compare the before and after images. If you have had a bony procedure, it will take a minimum of 6 weeks to heal.

At this stage if your healing is progressing satisfactorily swelling and bruising should have subsided considerably, although expect some degree of swelling for at least 3 to 4 months.

You will be able to start wearing normal footwear (swelling permitted), although stiff soled shoes are advisable. Continue to do the lesser toe exercises for another 6 weeks.


Three months post operatively

Final clinical examination. Discharge if satisfactory.

FAQs

When can I wear normal shoes?

This depends on your rate of healing and how much pain and swelling you have. For the first 6 weeks we advise you to use the stiff post operative shoe. After 6 weeks it is advised that you wear a stiff soled shoe with a wide toe box while your foot continues to heal.

When can I drive?

Please see guidance above and information here. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the patient to decide if they are safe to drive. A good way of knowing is if you can stamp your right foot heavily on the ground to mimic an emergency brake. If you have any hesitation or pain then it should suggest you are not safe to drive. Remember prolonged driving involves keeping your feet in a dependant position. This will worsen the post operative swelling.

When can I return to work?

This really depends on you and your job. If you have a job that involves a lot of standing, walking and is manual it may be 8 to 12 weeks. If you have a sedentary job, for example in an office and you have a reasonable commute you may be able to go back to work at 2 weeks, although this would be exceptional and not the norm.

What should the final outcome be?

Excellent pain relief and deformity correction. Ability to participate in sports by 6 months. Sometimes up to a year before the foot feels “normal” and fully healed.

Make an appointment