Hammertoe occurs when the middle joint of a toe is chronically bent, causing the tip of the toe to curl downward. The condition may affect any toe except the big toe. It most commonly affects the second toe.
Symptoms include sharp pain in the middle of the toe and difficulty straightening the toe. People with hammertoe may also develop blisters, which are fluid-filled pockets of skin, because the bent toe is likely to rub against the inside of a shoe. This increased friction may also lead to calluses, which are areas of thickened skin, and corns, which are hard lumps that may form on or between toes. Symptoms may be minor at first, but they can worsen over time.
Many people develop hammertoe because they wear shoes that are too tight. Shoes with narrow toe boxes squeeze the toes together, forcing some to bend. This causes the toe muscles to contract. If the toes are forced into this cramped position too often, the muscles may permanently tighten, preventing the toes from extending. Chronic hammertoe can also cause the long bones that connect the toes to the foot, called metatarsals, to move out of position. The misaligned metatarsal bones may pinch a nerve running between them, which can cause a type of nerve irritation called a neuroma.
More women than men develop hammertoe, and wearing high-heeled shoes can make the condition even worse. Shoes with heels higher than 1 inch squeeze and bend the toes, and increase the amount of stress put on the toes during movement.
The easiest way to avoid hammertoe is to wear shoes that fit properly. Orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists at NYU Langone recommend shoes that have roomy toe boxes, which give the toes plenty of space to flex. Shoes that fit well should also cushion the arch in the middle of the foot. This helps to distribute the weight of the body evenly across the bones and joints of the foot.
The size and shape of a foot can change with age, and many people inadvertently wear the wrong size shoe. Podiatrists recommend having your feet measured regularly to ensure that your shoes fit properly.
Learn more about our research and professional education opportunities.