What is wrong with your toe?

You get home from work and take off your shoes. As you relish the moment of your feet being free, you notice that the second toe on your right foot is curled up. After a few moments, it straightens. Over the next several days, this keeps happening. What’s going on? Why does your toe keep doing it? How can you get it to stop?


A hammertoe has an abnormal bend in the middle joint of a toe. If the joint nearest the toenail is affected, it’s called a mallet toe. It’s more likely to happen in your second, third, and fourth toes. In either case, they occur due to an imbalance in the muscles, tendons, or ligaments that typically hold the toe straight. Initially, the affected toe will maintain some flexibility, but the tendons contract and tighten over time, causing the toe to become permanently bent.

Besides abnormal balance of the muscles, it’s thought that certain types of shoes or trauma to a toe can cause the development of a hammertoe or mallet toe. When it comes to shoes, high-heels, or others where the toe box is too tight can crowd your toes into a space in which they can’t lie flat. Over time, the curled toe position might persist even when you’re barefoot. If you have an injury in which you stub, jam, or break a toe, it’s more likely to become deformed in the future. Some other factors that increase your chances of developing a hammertoe or mallet toe are being older, being female, having a family history of the condition, having a second toe that is longer than your big toe, or having certain medical conditions, like arthritis or diabetes.

Given the abnormal bend of the toe, it’s more likely to be difficult to move or be painful to do so. Since the toe will rub inside your shoe in a way that it usually wouldn’t, you could end up with corns or calluses in that area. These are the most common symptoms and complications.


Hammertoe and mallet toe treatment depends on if your foot is still flexible. If it is, your doctor will recommend that you switch to roomier, more comfortable footwear. They’ll also probably want you to wear shoe inserts (orthotics) or pads because they can reposition your toe and relieve pressure and pain. In addition, you’ll need to do exercises to stretch and strengthen your toe muscles, like picking up marbles or crumpling a towel with your toes. If conservative treatments don’t help or your toe is no longer flexible, your doctor will suggest surgery to release the tendon preventing your toe from lying flat. Sometimes, a piece of bone might need to be removed to straighten your toe.

If you’ve developed corns as a result of your hammertoe or mallet toe, avoid over-the-counter medicated corn-removal products since many of them contain acid that can cause severe skin irritation. Definitely don’t try shaving or cutting a corn off your toe because foot wounds can easily get infected and are often difficult to treat, especially if you have diabetes or poor circulation.


The best way to avoid hammertoes and mallet toes is to wear proper fitting shoes. When buying shoes, make sure you have adequate toe room, which means avoiding shoes with pointed toes. You should have at least a half-inch of space between your longest toe and the tip of the shoe. If you want heeled shoes, opt for low heels. Look for laced or strapped shoes because they’re roomier and adjustable. Another helpful thing is looking for shoes with flexible material covering the toes. A key thing to ensure is that the shoes are comfortable before you buy them. A couple of other considerations are to look for shoes at the end of the day because your feet naturally swell throughout the day, so they’ll be at their largest during this time. Also, check your size because your shoe size might change as you age, especially the width. You want to measure both feet and buy for the larger foot.

Hammertoes and mallet toes are not something you want to have to deal with. By following the preventative measures, you shouldn’t have to. If you have any questions or concerns about hammertoes or mallet toes, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons OrthoInfo’s Hammer Toe page at https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/hammer-toe