Claw Toe Vs Hammer Toe Vs Mallet Toe – What Are The Differences?

As we go about our day, we don’t often think about foot conditions that can develop due to how we walk or what we wear.

Most foot conditions develop slowly and over extended periods of time. Foot conditions can be caused by muscle imbalances, incorrect footwear, and foot biomechanics.

Some of the most common toe conditions that people may experience are claw toe, hammer toes, and mallet toes. If you’ve noticed that your toes are bent at the joint and you’re unsure which toe condition you have, then keep reading.

We’ll help you to identify if you have claw toe, hammer toe, or mallet toe.

What they look like

All three of these toe conditions can look very similar. They will affect the four small toes, not the big toe, but they do have their differences.

Hammer Toe

Hammer toe usually affects the second toe, but it can affect the third and fourth toes as well.

The toe will bend at the middle joint, causing it to rise up, bend and curl— often over one of the toes next to it—while the end of the toe is forced downwards.

Most times, people who have hammer toes also have bunions, corns, toenail issues, or even heel spurs.

Claw Toe

Claw toe looks similar to hammer toe, but it can occur in all four toes at the same time.

With claw toe, you’ll notice that the toe bends in the joint nearest the tip of the toe, as well as the middle joint.

The toe will bend upwards in the joint that connects the toes to the foot, while the middle and end joint curl downwards towards the floor.

It is like having hammer toe and mallet toe at the same time.

Mallet Toe

Mallet toe will mostly occur in the second toe, but it can affect the third and fourth toes as well.

With mallet toe, only the joint in the tip of the toe is affected, causing the very end of the toe to bend downwards.

Causes

While these toe conditions can develop over time, there are a number of causes that can lead to any one of these conditions.

An injury to the toe, foot, or ankle may make a person more likely to develop one of these conditions in one or more toes.

People with existing conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis are prone to developing these toe conditions, and people who have had a stroke.

Individuals who have flat feet may develop one of these toe conditions since their foot has to stabilize and support their body weight against a flattened arch. But it can also develop in people who have high arches, as the extensor tendons of the foot overpower the flexors.

Wearing shoes that are very tight in the toe box will cause your toes to bend unnaturally, which then causes the muscles and tendons to tighten and contract. Over time, this causes a muscle imbalance, where the muscles are no longer able to straighten the toes even when you’re not wearing shoes.

Tight or pointy shoes can cause a bunion to form, and the pressure from the bunion can lead to a person developing one of these toe conditions.

Symptoms

When you look at your feet you will notice if your toe—or toes— are bending, or if they’re curled and stay curled.

Once your shoes are off, you may find that while your toe could have some flexibility, you’re not able to straighten the toe and keep it straight. You may even find it difficult to wiggle your toes or flex your foot. It can cause pain in the toe or ball of the foot and some people may have difficulty walking.

Calluses and corns can form on either the top of the toe, the bottom of the tip of the toe, or on the ball of your foot. These calluses are often formed by the shoe rubbing against either the raised joint or the tip of the toe, or from the toe next to it.

Claw toe, hammer toe, and mallet toe are conditions that will get worse over time; if left untreated, the bend in the toes will become rigid and permanent. This may then lead to surgery to realign the toes.

Treatments

There are a number of treatments that you can try to help realign your toes, especially if there is still flexibility on the joint.

For a hammer toe, you can try taping the affected toe by wrapping tape around your big toe, then wrap the affected toe and take the tape under the toe on the other side of the affected toe. This can help to straighten the toe, as it gently forces the toe into its natural position, just like a splint.

You can also try using toe caps, gel toe stretchers, or splints that gently push your toes into their natural alignment—similar to taping your toe. Hammer toe socks may also be effective.

You may want to try using shoe inserts that not only provide cushioning, but that will align your foot to a more natural position, as well as provide some relief if you have calluses or corns.

Stretch and exercise your toes and feet several times a day. As an example, if your affected toe bends upwards, push it down gently for 5 to 10 seconds. While it’s stretching, you should feel a slow, long pull in the toe.

Make sure that you stretch each toe separately, working with one joint at a time. For exercise, put a towel on the floor and use your toes to crumple it up. You can pick up marbles with your toes and then drop them into a cup or place them on a different part of the towel.

Change your footwear. Shoes to help hammer toes and other conditions have a wide and deep toe box. This will prevent the inside of the shoe from rubbing against the toe, as well as allowing them space to splay naturally.

To help alleviate the pain, you can take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or Aleve.

But if the symptoms don’t get better, or if you have severe symptoms, it would be best to consult with your medical practitioner. In some severe cases, it may be necessary to undergo surgery.

Prevention

The best way to prevent claw, hammer, and mallet toe is to avoid wearing high heel shoes or shoes with pointed toes. If the shoe is too narrow and places pressure on your toes, you should stop wearing them.

You should also avoid shoes with heels that are higher than 2 inches, as this will alter the position of your toes.

Instead, look for shoes that have a wide toe box with at least ½ an inch between the inside tip of the shoe and your longest toe. This will let your toes lie flat comfortably in the shoe and have space between each toe.

Make sure that the shoe has a deep toe box, as this will prevent any chafing on the toes and it will allow you to insert an orthotic insert.

The shoe must have adequate arch support for your foot, to distribute the body weight evenly without creating other pressure points on your foot. This will also help to stabilize the foot and keep your foot in its natural alignment.

Tips for buying shoes

It’s always best to buy shoes that you’ve tried on near the end of the day. This will allow you to get a fit that will accommodate how your foot swells during the course of the day.

It’s also important to note that as we get older, our feet change shape and often get wider, which is why you should re-check your shoe size and width.

While it may seem like a good idea to wear flat shoes like flip flops, they can actually promote toe conditions like hammer toe, mallet toe, or claw toe, especially if they don’t provide adequate arch support. People with flat feet or low arches will find that every time they take a step, the toes splay outwards, trying to stabilize the foot by gripping the ground.

When you look at buying shoes, it’s best to look at shoes that have a wide and deep toe box. This will allow you to add an insert that will reduce the friction between your shoe and the foot.

The padding of the shoe should provide adequate arch support, as well as cushion the ball of your foot, which will allow your toes to splay naturally.

Check the inside of the shoe to make sure that it will be comfortable and that there aren’t any seams that could rub against your toes. It’s also best to get shoes that have either laces or adjustable straps.

This will allow you to easily adjust your shoe throughout the day when your foot swells and reduce pressure points on your foot.

American Podiatric Medical Association. “What is a Hammer Toe?” Accessed July 2021.
https://www.apma.org/hammertoes

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Claw Toe” Last updated September 2012. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/claw-toe/

Mark W. McFarland. “Mallot Toe” Last updated May 2018.
https://www.osc-ortho.com/blog/mallet-toe/