Prevent and Treat Hammertoe: Better Shoes Are Just Part of It

Women love shoes. Not all women and not all shoes, but many women like the way a little bit of heel and a pointy toe can take an outfit from everyday wear to nighttime splendor. Men, too, may prefer a sleek, narrow dress shoe for a professional appearance. Unfortunately, those good looks can add up over the years to form the hammertoe that many seniors experience. If this has already happened to you, is it too late to fix it?

What Is Hammertoe?

Hammertoe refers to an imbalance in the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding middle toe joints. When one of these parts weakens, the toe may have a hard time returning to a neutral position. When the toe is stuck in a bent position, eventually the muscles tighten so that the toe can no longer straighten at all.

At that point, corns and calluses typically develop on the top middle joints of toes. They can be accompanied by:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Burning sensation
  • Open sores

Causes of hammertoe

You are at a higher-than-average risk for hammertoe if:

  • You are female. Hammertoe is significantly more prevalent in women, most likely because of their shoes.
  • You’ve worn narrow, cramped or ill-fitting shoes throughout your lifetime. Footwear that’s too tight can force toes into a bent position. When this happens repeatedly, the toes may not be able to relax even when you’re barefoot.
  • Your second toe is longer than your “big” toe.
  • You suffer from rheumatoid arthritis or other deforming conditions. Studies indicate that foot and ankle deformities frequently start early in the disease. Left untreated, they can progress to become severe or fixed deformities that restrict mobility and contribute to a sedentary lifestyle. The decrease in physical activity leads to a higher risk for other health problems, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases.

Treating hammertoe at home

A study on the nonsurgical management of foot conditions caused by rheumatoid arthritis showed that supportive prescription footwear, shoe modifications, foot orthoses (specially designed footwear) and ankle-foot orthoses were excellent primary treatments for hammertoe. The study further indicated that patients who used orthopedic footwear reported less weight-bearing pain, had greater physical function, were able to walk faster, and walked with a greater stride length.

“Women should wear heels no higher than two inches,” says Dr. Patrick Donovan, physical therapist and owner of Heather Lane Physical Therapy in Denver. “The toe box should leave at least a half-inch space between your longest toe and your shoe’s inside tip. Wider toe boxes also help to prevent bunions.”

Toe-stretching exercises also have been shown to be effective at treating and preventing hammertoe. The exercises are simple, and you can do them while watching TV or relaxing in bed. Your physical therapist can provide you with these daily foot exercises and check that you’re doing them right for maximum benefit.

When At-Home Treatments Aren’t Enough

Severe hammertoe cases or major loss of flexibility in the toe may require surgery. Typically performed as an outpatient procedure with only a local anesthetic, this surgery redirects tendons from the bottom of the toe to the top where it’s bent. As a bonus, your surgeon can take the opportunity to correct other foot deformities you may have, such as bunions and other muscle or tendon imbalances common in seniors.

To start a physical therapy treatment for foot problems, call Heather Lane Physical Therapy at 720-507-3962 or book online. Dr. Donovan will design a customized toe exercise program that will help to reverse hammertoe, diminish foot pain, and let you keep up with your active lifestyle.

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