The term hammertoes is used to describe 3 major types of curly toe conditions. When broken down to what joint or joints are contracted, we actually have 3 separate terms; hammertoes, claw toes, and mallet toes. With true hammertoes, the first joint in the toe is contracted, giving the appearance of --- you guessed it! A hammer. Claw toes mean that both joints within the toe are contracted, making the toe look more claw-like. Mallet toes then are when the contracture in the toe happens in the joint furthest from the base of the toe.
Many people believe that hammertoes are a genetic condition. This is true in a sense. Hammertoes are seen in various foot types and your foot type is definitely passed down from your family members. The reason that it is important to make this distinction between a direct genetic link and one that is secondary is that hammertoes can be prevented, regardless of your foot type. This condition is the result of muscular imbalances in your feet that cause your toes to grip the floor or your shoe to stabilize itself. When this happens over a long period of time, the muscles that are firing to help you grip can actually shorten and after further time, the joint that is contracted can actually adapt to the new position. Both people with high arch feet and low arch feet can get hammertoes and having your specific foot type identified allows a podiatrist to recommend a support that can be used in the shoe to correct the predisposing muscle imbalances.
Now if you already have hammertoes, there are many ways to address this problem. Having a support in your shoes can still prevent the condition from worsening in many cases. These inserts also can have modifications added that help to alleviate pressure in the ball of the foot that many people experience with more severe hammertoes. If the pain or issue stems from corns or calluses, again, inserts in the shoe decrease pressure which in turn reduces your body's desire to place extra skin (hyperkeratosis) on these areas. Certain creams also help to soften calluses and there are pads available which help to reduce pressure on the tips of the toes. Surgery is also an option in hammertoes. Generally speaking, hammertoe surgery is elective. This means that it is not always a do or die situation. If you get to a point where your hammer toes affect your daily life and keep you from doing the things you love to do comfortably, it may be time to consider hammertoe surgery.
A couple more things to keep in mind about hammertoes; 1) They aren't always from a genetically inherited foot type and 2) They don't usually occur as a sole foot deformity. Another instance where a hammertoe can occur is in a traumatic injury to a ligament in the ball of the foot called the plantar plate. If this ligament is sprained (stretched or torn) a toe can begin to float up from its base and in trying to compensate a contracture can form within the toe. If you ever experience this, early treatment allows the ligament to heal and prevent future problems - and typically if caught early enough you can also avoid having to undergo surgery to repair this ligament. On the second point, hammertoes are very very often seen in conjunction with a bunion. While we have seen many people here at PPFAC that are only bothered by their hammertoe but not with their bunion, we find people reluctant to address a bunion when considering hammertoe surgery. Unfortunately, when a bunion is also present, the great toe drifts into the neighboring toes and if surgical correction of the hammertoe is attempted and the bunion is not addressed - the hammertoe will inevitably return or actually be more painful after surgery as there is no room for it to sit at the same level as the adjacent toes.