Hammer, Claw, or Mallet Toe: Should I Have Surgery?
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.
Hammer, Claw, or Mallet Toe: Should I Have Surgery?
Get the facts
- Have surgery for hammer, claw, or mallet toes.
- Try nonsurgical treatments for hammer, claw, or mallet toes.
Key points to remember
- Consider surgery if your toe is too painful, if your deformity is too great, or if you can't easily do your daily activities.
- Your expectations will play a big role in how you feel about the results of surgery. Surgery may not help how your foot looks.
- Your toe problems may come back after surgery. This is more likely if you keep wearing the kinds of shoes that cause toe problems.
- Instead of having surgery, you can try wearing shoes with lots of room for your toes and using pads and supports in the shoe for protection and comfort. Doing toe exercises can help straighten your toes and make your toes more flexible.
Hammer, claw, and mallet toes are toes that do not have the right shape. They may look odd or may hurt, or both. Tight shoes are the most common cause of these toe problems.
- A hammer toe is a toe that bends down toward the floor at the middle toe joint. It usually happens in the second toe. This causes the middle toe joint to rise up. Hammer toes often occur with bunions.
- Claw toe often happens in the four smaller toes at the same time. The toes bend up at the joints where the toes and the foot meet. They bend down at both the middle joints and at the joints nearest the tip of the toes. This causes the toes to curl down toward the floor.
- A mallet toe often happens to the second toe, but it may happen in the other toes as well. The toe bends down at the joint closest to the tip of the toe.
Hammer, claw, and mallet toes can cause discomfort and pain and may make it hard to walk. Shoes may rub on your toes, causing pain, blisters, calluses or corns, or sores. Sores can become infected and lead to cellulitis or osteomyelitis, especially if you have diabetes or peripheral arterial disease. If you have one of these health problems and sores develop, contact your doctor.
You can treat hammer, claw, and mallet toes at home by doing the following:
- Wear roomy shoes.
- Use pads and supports for protection and comfort.
- Do toe exercises. These will make the toe muscles stronger and more flexible.
- Limit activities that cause pain.
- Use over-the-counter medicine to treat pain.
If your hammer, claw, or mallet toe gets worse, or if nonsurgical treatment does not help your pain, you may think about surgery. The type of surgery you choose depends on how severe your condition is and whether the toe joint is fixed (has no movement) or flexible (has some movement). A fixed toe joint often requires surgery to be straightened. A flexible toe joint can sometimes be straightened without surgery.
Surgery choices include:
- Phalangeal head resection (arthroplasty), in which the surgeon removes part of the toe bone.
- Joint fusion (arthrodesis), in which the surgeon removes part of the joint, letting the toe bones grow together (fuse).
- Cutting supporting tissue or moving tendons in the toe joint.
How well surgery works depends on what type of surgery you have, how experienced your surgeon is, and how badly your toes are affected.
Surgery may not help how your foot looks. And your toe problems may also come back after surgery. This is more likely if you keep wearing the kinds of shoes that cause toe problems.
Your expectations will play a large role in how you feel about the results of surgery. If you are only having surgery to improve the way your foot looks, you may not be happy with how it turns out.
Generally, surgery is used only if your symptoms do not improve with nonsurgical treatment.
Think about surgery if you have:
- Bad toe pain that interferes with your daily activities, and nonsurgical treatments have not worked.
- A badly deformed foot that interferes with your daily activities.
- A fixed toe joint deformity. This condition typically requires surgery to relieve pain and correct the deformity.
Surgery may not be an option if your toe deformity is caused by a problem with your nervous system or if you have a condition that affects your blood vessels, such as diabetes.
Compare your options
What is usually involved?
What are the benefits?
What are the risks and side effects?
- You can go home the same day as your surgery.
- You may be able to return to work or your normal routine within 3 to 6 weeks. This depends on things like the type of surgery you have, whether your usual activity requires certain shoes or not, and what type of work you do.
- You may need crutches for a few days.
- Relieves pain
- Allows you to walk more comfortably
- Decreases the risk that you will have skin problems where the hammer, claw, or mallet toe rubs on your shoe
- Healing may take a long time.
- You may have swelling that doesn't go away, numbness, or a limited range of motion in the affected toe.
- Surgery may not change how your foot looks.
- Your toe problems may come back after surgery, especially if you keep wearing shoes that cause toe problems.
- All surgery has risks, including infection and problems related to anesthesia and bleeding.
- Try wearing shoes with more room and using pads and supports to cushion painful toes.
- Do toe exercises to make your toes stronger and more flexible.
- Take over-the-counter medicine for pain.
- Provides room for the toe to straighten and muscles to get stronger
- Relieves pain
- Avoids risk of surgery, including swelling and numbness
- If your toe problem is very bad, you may not get relief from your pain.
- Other treatment may not correct the toe deformity.
Personal stories about surgery for hammer, claw, or mallet toes
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
Others in my family have hammer toes, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised about getting one, especially after my doctor told me that wearing high-heeled shoes contributes to their development. I guess I didn't realize how much shoes can affect your feet. My doctor suggested wearing shoes with a lower heel and more room in the toes, as this could help my foot pain. I'm going to give up high heels and see if this helps with the pain. I don't really want to have surgery.
Diane, age 54
I have a claw toe that is just killing me. The only time it doesn't hurt is when I'm barefoot, but I can't live my life like that. I gave up high heels and always wear the roomiest shoes possible, and it still hurts. I'm to the point where the pain is keeping me from doing things I used to do. I'm going to have surgery to relieve the pain.
Franny, age 47
I like to run 5 or 6 days a week. My hammer toe hurts when I run, but I have cut my running shoe so that my toe has room when I run. I also changed my work shoes to a softer leather that doesn't hurt my toe. I know I may need surgery in the future, but I've found a way to delay it for now.
Carlos, age 41
I waitress part-time to make extra money, and I also really enjoy interacting with the people at my job. The only bad part is that after a night on the job I have a hammer toe that really hurts. I've gone from high heels to lower heels, but I really can't do anything else because my boss doesn't want me in tennis shoes or something more comfortable. I guess I could quit, but I don't want to. My doctor tells me that surgery can help with my hammer toe, but it could come back if I keep wearing heels. I'm going to give surgery a try, talk to my boss again, and see what happens.
Mary, age 50
What matters most to you?
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to choose surgery for hammer, claw, or mallet toes
Reasons to choose other treatment
I want to do everything I can to fix my toe problem, even if my problem could return after surgery.
I don't want to have surgery if it might not fix my problem.
I want to have surgery even if it won't improve the way my foot looks.
The only reason I would have surgery is if it would improve the way my foot looks.
I've already tried wearing roomy shoes, pads, and cushions on my toes. These treatments have not worked.
I haven't tried wearing roomy shoes, pads, and cushions on my toes. These treatments might work for me.
I'm in pain and can't do daily activities.
My pain isn't too bad, and I'm still able to do daily activities.
I'm not too concerned about the risks involved in foot surgery.
I'm worried about the risks involved in foot surgery.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Where are you leaning now?
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
Trying other treatment
What else do you need to make your decision?
Check the facts
Surgery is a good choice because it will make my foot look better.
My toe problems could come back even if I have surgery.
- TrueYou're right. Your toe problems could come back after surgery. This is more likely if you keep wearing the kinds of shoes that cause toe problems.
- FalseSorry, that's not right. Your toe problems could come back after surgery. This is more likely if you keep wearing the kinds of shoes that cause toe problems.
- I'm not sureIt might help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Your toe problems could come back after surgery.
Wearing pads in my shoes and changing the kinds of shoes I wear may relieve my pain.
- TrueThat's right. You can treat toe problems by wearing roomy shoes, pads, and cushions for your toes. Doing toe exercises will also help stretch and strengthen your toes.
- FalseSorry, that's wrong. You can treat toe problems by wearing roomy shoes, pads, and cushions for your toes. Doing toe exercises will also help stretch and strengthen your toes.
- I'm not sureIt might help to go back and read "Get the Facts." There are several things you can do to relieve your pain.
Decide what's next
Do you understand the options available to you?
Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Gavin W.G. Chalmers, DPM - Podiatry and Podiatric Surgery|
Last Updated:June 29, 2011