Overview

Hammertoe and mallet toe are foot deformities that occur due to an imbalance in the muscles, tendons or ligaments that normally hold the toe straight. The type of shoes you wear, foot structure, trauma and certain disease processes can contribute to the development of these deformities.

A hammertoe has an abnormal bend in the middle joint of a toe. Mallet toe affects the joint nearest the toenail. Hammertoe and mallet toe usually occur in your second, third and fourth toes.

Relieving the pain and pressure of hammertoe and mallet toe may involve changing your footwear and wearing shoe inserts. If you have a more severe case of hammertoe or mallet toe, you might need surgery to get relief.

Symptoms

Hammertoe and mallet toe feature an abnormal bend in the joints of one or more of your toes. Moving the affected toe may be difficult or painful. Corns and calluses can result from the toe rubbing against the inside of your shoes.

Causes

Hammertoe and mallet toe have been linked to:

  • Certain shoes. High-heeled shoes or footwear that's too tight in the toe box can crowd your toes into a space in which they can't lie flat. This curled toe position might eventually persist even when you're barefoot.
  • Trauma. An injury in which you stub, jam or break a toe can make it more likely for that digit to develop hammertoe or mallet toe.
  • Abnormal balance of the toe muscles. The imbalance leads to instability, which can cause the toe to contract.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase you risk of hammertoe and mallet toe include:

  • Age. The risk of hammertoe and mallet toe increases with age.
  • Sex. Women are much more likely to develop hammertoe or mallet toe than are men.
  • Toe length. If your second toe is longer than your big toe, it's at higher risk of hammertoe or mallet toe.
  • Certain diseases. Arthritis and diabetes might make you more prone to developing foot deformities. Heredity might also play a role.

Complications

At first, a hammertoe or mallet toe might maintain its flexibility. But eventually, the tendons of the toe can contract and tighten, causing your toe to become permanently bent. Your shoes can rub against the raised portion of the toe or toes, causing painful corns or calluses.

Prevention

You can avoid many foot, heel and ankle problems with shoes that fit properly. Here's what to look for when buying shoes:

  • Adequate toe room. Avoid shoes with pointed toes.
  • Low heels. Avoiding high heels will help you avoid back problems.
  • Adjustability. Laced or strapped shoes are roomier and adjustable.

These additional tips can help you buy the right shoes:

  • Buy shoes at the end of the day. Your feet swell throughout the day.
  • Check your size. As you age, your shoe size might change — especially the width. Measure both feet and buy for the larger foot.
  • Buy shoes that fit. Be sure shoes are comfortable before you buy them. If necessary, a shoe repair store might be able to stretch shoes in tight spots, but it's better to buy them to fit.