Hammertoes Vs. Claw Toes: What’s the Difference?

Toes are amazing. These tiny digits provide us with the ability to maintain good posture and balance. They support our body weight, help us move forward, and allow us to do the things we love most. Sometimes, however, our toes get a bit bent out of shape. This is especially true if you find it difficult to stretch or straighten out one or more of your toes! If this sounds like you, you might be suffering from hammertoes or claw toes. What are hammertoes and claw toes? What is the difference between the two, and how are they treated? Find out all about these podiatric conditions below!

What Are Hammertoes?

Hammertoes occur when the proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP), a.k.a. the middle joint of the toe, becomes curved or bent downward due to an imbalance in the muscles, tendons, or ligaments responsible for holding the toe straight. This contracture causes the PIP joint to be raised. Hammertoes generally occur in the second toe, especially if it happens to be longer than the big toe, but other toes can be affected as well. It isn’t uncommon for hammertoes to happen along with bunions either!

What Are Claw Toes?

Unlike hammertoes, claw toes typically affect several toes at once. Claw toes are contracted at both the PIP and the DIP (distal interphalangeal) joint – that is, both the middle and end joints. They cause the toes to curl up at the base, down in the middle, and down near the tip, resembling claws. This can occur in any toe aside from the big toe.

What Causes Hammertoes and Claw Toes?

Generally, both of these deformities can be attributed to an imbalance somewhere in the connecting muscle or tendon, which results in a progressive structural or mechanical change in the toes. People of any age can develop hammertoes or claw toes, although the risk does increase as you age. There are a few key differences in the causes behind each deformity:

  • Hammertoes: These tend to occur because of a mechanical or structural deficiency, a traumatic injury to the toe, pressure from a troublesome bunion, or even having high arches. Wearing ill-fitting shoes or developing arthritis can also lead to hammertoes.

  • Claw toes: Unlike hammertoes, claw toes are generally the result of a type of nerve damage caused by diseases like diabetes or alcohol abuse. This damage can weaken the tiny muscles in your toes, leading to claw toes.

Both of these podiatric deformities are progressive and will worsen or even become permanent if left untreated!

What Symptoms Might I Experience if I Have Hammertoes or Claw Toes?

Both hammertoes and claw toes can be painful conditions that can cause trouble with walking and lower your quality of life. Here are the general symptoms that these conditions can cause:

  • Burning sensation when bearing weight
  • Calluses and corns on the toe, between the toes, or on the ball of the foot
  • Distinct physical deformity of the toe
  • Joint stiffness
  • Pain, discomfort, and irritation, especially when wearing shoes or walking barefoot on hard surfaces
  • Painful and difficult toe movement
  • Swelling, redness, or inflammation
  • Wounds or ulcerations on the affected toe

How Are Hammertoes and Claw Toes Treated?

If you catch hammertoes or claw toes early enough, conservative correctional methods might be all you need to fix the problem! When your podiatrist checks out your feet, they will determine the best treatment for you and help slow down the deformity’s progress.

A few of the typical conservative methods podiatrists tend to use for hammertoes and claw toes include:

  • Custom orthotics to offload imbalances in the muscles and tendons
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for acute flare-ups
  • Padding
  • Recommending comfortable, supportive shoes to wear
  • Recommending particular exercises to strengthen and stretch your toe muscles
  • Removing any corns or calluses present in a pain-free manner
  • Splinting or strapping the toes
  • Taping the toes or feet

In more severe cases, however, surgery may be required. This is why it’s so important to act quickly and visit your podiatrist if you suspect a problem with your feet, ankles, or toes!

Can Hammertoes and Claw Toes Be Prevented?

Sometimes. Hammertoes in particular can often be a hereditary issue (especially if you or your family has a history of bunions), but the condition’s progression can be slowed! To keep your toes healthy and strong for as long as possible, remember to wear comfortable, supportive shoes with a wide enough toe box, avoid wearing high heels, and stretch your toes and feet regularly to maintain tip-top flexibility.

Count on The Foot & Ankle Center for Help! Think you might have a hammertoe, claw toe, or any other podiatric problem? Call on the friendly and knowledgeable doctors at The Foot & Ankle Center for help! You can reach us at (314) 487-9300 or request an appointment online!