Hammer toe can be uncomfortable, painful, and can alter your gait.
While changing your footwear can help to reduce pain and prevent chafing, it may not be enough to properly support the hammer toe when walking.
Can orthotics help hammer toe?
Well, it depends on your feet, the stage the hammer toe is in, and the orthotics you choose.
But using orthotics can usually help to prevent the hammer toe from getting worse. They are definitely worth a try if you’re looking for solutions to the discomfort and pain.
Here’s all the information you should know to decide if an orthotic is a worthwhile treatment option for you.
What is a Hammer Toe?
Hammertoe is an abnormal bend—contracture—of the middle joint in the toe, called the proximal interphalangeal joint. The tip of the toe will point downwards, while the middle joint curls upwards, giving the toe the appearance of an upside-down V.
This abnormal bend is caused by an imbalance of the muscles that surround the middle joint. As some of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons weaken, others will tighten. This imbalance will prevent you from straightening your toe.
Hammer toe is a progressive foot condition that usually occurs in the second toe, but it can affect your third to fifth toes as well. Hammer toes are more common in women than in men. It’s also more difficult to find shoes that fit properly when you have hammertoes.
You may experience pain in the affected toe as the inside of your shoe’s upper rubs against it, or it may rub against the toe next to it. It’s also not uncommon for a corn or callus to form on the top of the toe, because of this chafing.
It may be difficult to move or straighten the toe, even when you’ve taken your shoes off. You may also find it painful when you try to move the toe.
There are Two Different Types:
Flexible Hammer Toes:
Flexible hammer toe is milder—less serious—as the joint is still moveable. At this stage, you can still straighten the toe out. This makes it possible to treat and reduce the symptoms of hammer toe without surgery.
There may still be pain and discomfort with a flexible hammer toe, even though there’s still a good range of movement.
Rigid Hammer Toes
Rigid hammer toes are more serious, as the joint is no longer moveable by this stage. When the tendon and soft tissues become tight, they pull the joint out of alignment. This leads to the loss of function of the affected toe.
Your doctor may recommend the use of orthotics and properly fitted shoes, which can provide temporary relief from pain.
However, in most cases surgery will be needed to realign and restore the function of the affected toe.
What are Orthotics?
Orthotics—also called custom inserts—are insole-like devices that are inserted into your shoes. They’re often designed or prescribed by your podiatrist to provide support for your foot when you’re doing weight-bearing activities.
Orthotics can help reduce pain, assist the foot with mobility, and correct foot deformities. Depending on the severity of your hammer toes, your podiatrist will either recommend custom orthotics or they may start treatment with more affordable off-the-shelf orthotics.
Can Orthotics Help Hammer Toe Deformities?
Orthotic devices are versatile tools that allow you to customize your treatment. These devices may prevent the hammer toe from getting worse and reduce the symptoms.
That being said, orthotic devices are more often recommended for flexible hammer toes, rather than rigid hammer toes.
Using an orthotic device can stabilize the foot during your gait cycle by reducing the pull of the flexor tendon on the joints.
If the orthotic has a built-in metatarsal pad, then this will reduce the amount of stress on the metatarsals and help put a flexible hammer toe into a straighter position.
If you overpronate, the use of orthotics will control the foot’s motion and stabilize the flexors in the flexible hammer toe. This reduces the amount of pull on the flexor tendons when walking or running.
Your podiatrist may recommend an orthotic to correct any abnormal functioning of the foot that could be the cause of the hammer toe.
Orthotics can also redistribute the body’s weight more evenly across the bones and joints of the foot. This reduces the amount of stress placed on the toes, giving them time to heal.
How Do Orthotics Help Hammer Toe?
Orthotics are often used in the treatment of flexible hammer toe, and the goal is to reduce the pull of the flexor tendon on the joints.
Orthotics work to correct the alignment and structure of the foot, which can provide pain relief. They also distribute your body weight evenly, which reduces the impact from foot strikes and reduces pressure on the toes when you stand, walk or run.
You’ll find that your feet are more comfortable when wearing orthotics, as they provide extra padding for the metatarsals. This additional cushioning helps to offload the base of the affected toe, which will help to reduce the symptoms of hammer toe.
This kind of built-in metatarsal support helps to lift and slightly separate the toes from one another. It helps to take the pressure off of the ball of the foot and toes, which can prevent the hammer toe from getting worse.
Some custom orthotics may use a grippier surface, which helps to hold your toes in place. But you’d need to speak to your podiatrist about this technique before deciding if it’s something that would work for you.
What Other Options Can Help Hammer Toes?
Aside from using full-length orthotics, your podiatrist may recommend using metatarsal pads. These help to separate the toes and reduce the amount of pressure that’s placed on the toes and forefoot.
If your hammer toe is still flexible, then you can try using toe separators. These help to gently push the toe into its natural position. They also help to prevent the ligaments, tendons, and muscles from tightening and pulling the toe out of alignment.
You could also use toe wraps—elastic bandages—that have a Velcro strap to bind the hammer toe to the toe next to it. This serves as a splint to keep the hammer toe straight.
You can also try taping your hammer toe, as this will help to relieve pain, reduce the pull on the flexor tendons, and gently push the toe back into its natural position.
Start wearing shoes that have a wide, deep toe box. This will allow your toes to splay naturally and will accommodate orthotic devices.
You’ll find that this will also prevent the formation of calluses, as your toe won’t be rubbing up against the inside of the shoe.
Include toe stretches and exercises in your day. Doing so will help to correct muscle imbalances, increase flexibility, and help to increase the mobility of the affected toe.
It may help to do toe exercises that have you extend, spread, and curl the toes.
If you have a rigid hammer toe, then it would be best to speak to your podiatrist before trying a treatment option.
In most cases, treatment for a rigid hammer toe is surgery. The type of surgery you may have could include surgeries to increase the tendon length, transfer a tendon, or do a joint fusion surgery—arthrodesis.