Hammertoe is the general term used to describe an abnormal contraction or “buckling” of the toe because of a partial or complete dislocation of one of the joints of the toe or the joint where the toe joins with the rest of the foot. Other types of crooked toes include claw toes and mallet toes. These are basically the same as hammer toes but involve buckling at different joints in the toe.
Crooked toes themselves often do not cause pain, however as the toe becomes deformed, it rubs against the shoe and the irritation causes the body to build up more and thicker skin to help protect the area. The common name for the thicker skin is a corn. At first, this thick skin helps reduce irritation to the bone prominence, but as the skin becomes thicker, it adds to the pressure from the shoe. Periodic trimming of the corn may give temporary relief. However, over a period of time, a bursa may develop and if it becomes inflamed (bursitis), the area becomes red, swollen and painful. It may also become infected.
There are two joints in the lesser toes and one joint in the great toe. If the deformity occurs in the joint nearest the nail, it is called a mallet toe and the corn will usually develop on the tip of the toe. This is due to the pressure being on the tip of the last toe bone rather than at the fat pad under the tip of the toe. If the deformity is at the other toe joint, or where the toe joins the foot, it is called a hammertoe and the corn will occur on the top of the toe
Do not confuse corns with calluses that occur on the bottom of the feet. They are generally caused by other conditions, although a severe hammertoe may create downward pressure on a metatarsal bone at the ball of the foot, and add to the cause of a callus.
A hammertoe may be present but not always painful unless irritated by shoes. One may have enlarged toe joints with some thickened skin and no redness or swelling. However, if shoes create pressure on the joint, the pain will usually range from pinching and squeezing to sharp and burning. Cramping in the toes, foot and leg may develop from the muscles and tendons functioning in abnormal positions because of the deformed joints. In long standing conditions, the dislocated joints can cause the pain of arthritis.
Although there is little doubt shoes are responsible for causing corns, the size, shape and other characteristics of our feet are hereditary. The contraction and/or rotation of toes can be the result of poor mechanics of the foot, resulting in overpronation. This results in low or flat arches, which cause the muscles and tendons of the foot to twist the toes and joints away from their normal position. High arched feet (over‑supination) can also result in similar conditions.
A severe bunion may cause a hammertoe, as the great toe twists over or under the second toe, causing it to dislocate. Shoes cause the corn, as the bony top of the toe rubs on the toe box of the shoe, but the underlying problem is the abnormal position of the toe joints, which may be hereditary.
The crooked toe is irritated by the pressure on the joint or spur. As a result, the skin becomes thicker to form a protection. The thicker the skin, the more pressure and eventually, a bursitis under the corn may develop. This causes the joint to become red, swollen and painful. In addition, the skin can break down and become infected.