Do you love high heels and trendy shoes? They may not love you back. Cramming your feet into shoes that are too tight, too high, or have too pointy a toe could worsen a potentially painful condition called a hammertoe. 

What Is a Hammertoe?

A hammertoe develops when a joint of one or more of your toes becomes damaged and bent into a claw-like shape. This problem can worsen over time; in some cases, it may progress to the point that you can't move the affected toe. Hammertoes can cause serious pain.

What Causes a Hammertoe?

"The most common cause of a hammertoe is an imbalance between the tendons [the tissue that connects muscles with other body parts] that pull the toes up and those that pull the toe down," says Carolyn McAloon, DPM, president of the California Podiatric Medical Association. "When one set of these tendons is stronger than the other, the toes bend at the joints."

It's not only wearing ill-fitting shoes that can aggravate a hammertoe. People with flat feet, a high arch, arthritis, or a genetic tendency toward having a longer toe may be prone to developing hammertoes.

Hammertoe Signs and Side Effects

When a hammertoe strikes, it often affects the second toe (the one next to the big toe), but it's certainly not limited to this spot. It can just as easily affect any toe, or even multiple toes.

Along with a hammertoe, some people may also develop a corn, which is a small, painful, blister-like growth that forms on the top of the affected toe. Patients with hammertoe may also develop a callous on the bottom of the foot. A callous is similar to a corn, but is usually bigger and not painful.

Hammertoe Damage Control

If you suspect you have a hammertoe, it's important to see a podiatrist. In mild cases, making some simple adjustments may minimize the discomfort. For instance, your podiatrist may suggest:

  • Using a splint to hold the toe if your tendons can still be manipulated
  • Gentle stretching exercises

Making smarter shoe choices can also help to prevent a hammertoe from worsening: "The most common advice is to make sure that shoes have a roomy toe box so that there is no rubbing on the prominent toe," McAloon explains. "Avoiding tight shoes and using prescribed custom orthotics may also slow down the progression of the deformity."

For a more severe hammertoe, the only way to cure it is with surgery.

Carolyn E. McAloon, DPM, reviewed by this article. 



David Zuckerman, MD, Podiatric Medicine. "Surgery is Not the Only Cure for Those Hammertoes." Accessed website article 18 June 2013.

"Hammer Toe." National Library of Medicine - PubMed Health. Reviewed Aug. 11, 2012. Accessed online June 16, 2013.