Mallet toes and hammer toes are similar conditions. They can both cause pain and discomfort, as well as slow you down if they’re at an advanced stage.
But if they’re still flexible, it’s important to do mallet toe exercises and stretches to prevent the condition from becoming worse.
It’s important to start implementing exercises and other treatment options as early as possible for them to be as effective as possible.
What Are Mallet Toes?
Mallet toe is a progressive foot condition where the joint at the tip of the toe has an upward bend. This causes the tip of the toe to bend downwards, which looks like the toe is curled instead of lying flat.
In most cases, mallet toe occurs in the second toe, but it can also affect the third and fourth toes.
One of the most common causes of mallet toe is wearing shoes that are too narrow, too short, or too tight. This repeatedly forces the tip of the toe upwards, causing the joint of the tip of the toe to bend upwards.
This can also cause a muscle imbalance, as wearing improper footwear regularly forces the toe into a bent position. Over time, the muscles and tendons around the toe contract and weaken.
Once the muscles and tendons have weakened, you’ll find that you can’t straighten the toe, even when you’re not wearing any shoes.
If you have existing conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, or arthritis, then you are at a higher risk of developing mallet toe.
The structure of your foot can also put you at a higher risk of developing a mallet toe, especially if you have flat feet. This is due to the way your foot stabilizes and supports your body weight against a flattened arch.
Aside from the upwards bend of the toe joint, you may also notice that the skin on the affected toe is red and may be swollen.
This can be caused by your shoe rubbing against the toe, which can also lead to a corn or callus developing on the bent part of the toe.
Your affected toe can be painful, especially when walking or while you wear shoes. You may notice that the toenail becomes thicker or that it changes color on the mallet toe.
Are the Mallet Toes Flexible or Rigid?
There are two stages to mallet toes, and the toe is either described as flexible or rigid.
In the early stages of mallet toe, your toe will still be flexible. This means that you can still move the toe or put the joint back into its proper alignment.
As the condition progresses, the surrounding tendons and muscles tighten. At this point, the joint becomes rigid and the toe won’t straighten.
Treating Mallet Toe
The sooner you start to treat the mallet toe, especially when the toe is still flexible, then you may be able to prevent the progression.
Start wearing shoes that have a wide, deep toe box. Not only will your toes be able to splay naturally, but this will prevent your toe from rubbing up against the inside of the shoe.
Avoid wearing shoes that have a narrow toe box or high-heeled shoes that will force your toe to bend upwards.
For additional support, you can use orthotic insoles that have adequate support for your arch type, to reposition your toes and reduce the pressure on your toes.
You can also try using toe tubes, as these will place your foot in a more comfortable position and provide support for your bent toe. This can help correct the mallet toe.
If your toe is still flexible, then you may want to use a mallet toe brace or splint. These are specifically designed to gently stretch and straighten the tendons in the toe.
Stretch and exercise your toes and feet several times throughout the day. This will help to correct muscle imbalances and strengthen the muscles and tendons, which can help to correct the mallet toe.
In mild cases, buddy taping the affected toe to the toe next to it can pull the toe back into its natural position. This can help to straighten the mallet toe as it acts as a splint.
Exercises for Mallet Toes
Exercising your toes will help to improve the muscle imbalances, maintain flexibility of the joint, and correct the toes alignment. The exercises below can also help to strengthen the rest of your foot, including your arches.
1. Gently Pull On Your Toes to Stretch the Bent Joints
This exercise will stretch your toe and increase flexibility of the joint. It will also reduce the symptoms of mallet toe, so you can go about your daily activities more easily.
Start by holding the affected toe in your dominant hand, and stretch the toe in the opposite direction to which it’s bent. For example, if your mallet toe bends up, gently pull it down.
Hold the toe in that stretched position for 10 to 20 seconds. You should feel a slow, gentle pull. Work on one toe at a time.
Do this exercise in the morning and in the evening. You can also take a 5-minute break during the course of your day, and do this exercise to stretch your toes.
2. Do Towel Curls
This exercise will help to develop strength and help correct muscle imbalances in the toe. It will also help to keep the mallet toe flexible.
You can sit or stand for this exercise. Spread the towel on the floor so that it’s flat underneath the foot with the mallet toe. Then using only your toes, crumple the towel up.
Repeat this exercise on your opposite foot as well.
3. Do Marble Pickups
This exercise is great for increasing the flexibility of toes. You’ll need a bag of marbles and a cup for this exercise.
Start by sitting on a chair, and placing the marbles on the floor in front of you. Using the foot that has the mallet toe, use only your toes to pick up the marbles and drop them in a cup.
Once you’ve placed all the marbles in the cup, repeat the exercise on your opposite foot.
4. Toe Lifts
This exercise will help you develop flexibility, balance, and strength.
Stand barefoot on a flat surface. You can use a sturdy chair or the wall to help you maintain your balance.
Start with the foot that has the mallet toe, and make sure to keep your foot flat on the ground. Then lift your toes up, while spreading them.
Try to hold this movement for 10 to 20 seconds. Then try to lift up only your big toe and hold that position for 5 to 10 seconds. You’ll then try to only lift your small toes—2nd to 5th toes—and hold that position for 5 to 10 seconds.
This may take some practice, but you’ll find that it gets easier every day when you do it.
Repeat this exercise on your opposite foot as well.
5. Elevated Toe Lifts
You’ll need to place your toes on an object that’s slightly higher than your toes, like a thick book.
Then keep your foot flat on the ground, place your toes on the book, and try to raise your toes as high as you can. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
Repeat this exercise 10 times on each foot.