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  • Karen Stoner, LMT

About My Aches: Hammertoe

What is it?

Each toe has 3 joints and is made up of 4 bones (except the big toe which has 2 joints and 3 bones). The toes are the distal, middle, and proximal phalanges which attach into the metatarsals. The joints between those toes are the Interphalangeal Distal, Interphalangeal Proximal, and Matatarsalphalangeal joints. Hammertoe happens when the muscles and tendons surrounding the joints of the toes get shortened, causing the fascia around those toes to shrink which then makes the toes bend, curl, or criss-cross involuntarily and permanently. There are different terms and levels of hammertoe based on which joints are affected and how badly they bend including "Hammertoe", "Claw Toe", "Mallet Toe", and "Curly Toe".

What does it feel like?

The joints in the toes hurt, and when the toes curl and don't lay flat, balance and stability when walking or standing can be diminished. There may also be cramping in the top or bottom of the foot, or pain in the ankle. If the toes are crossed or bent, the foot is also at risk for bunions - painful bony lumps on the sides of the feet at the base of the big or little toe.

What causes it?

Wearing improperly fitting shoes for extended amounts of time (think pointy-shoe trends in office shoes of the past) can contribute to the toes contracting and moving into unnatural positions. Injuries to the feet that cause the muscles to contract or the joints to swell can also cause the toes to curl.

Can Massage help?

The sooner massage can be used on hammertoes, the more effective it will be. Over time, as the joints bend, the muscles and fascia can get very stiff. Massage can absolutely help relax the muscles and retrain the fascia to help straighten out the toes. Massage may also be done along the entire length of the muscles that affect the toes (those muscles are not only located in the feet) to eliminate any areas that may be pulling on the toes. The longer the hammertoe has been happening, the stiffer the muscles and fascia, so massage may need to be more intense and frequent, and take a little longer to get results.

What can I do on my own?

Wear shoes that allow the toes to "spread out" and lay flat. If possible, see a professional shoe fitter that fits based on the shape and needs of your feet. Keep good arch support to keep the feet overall aligned. If the toes are crossing, use an over-the-counter toe spacer to help "retrain" the toes to stay straight, or if a toe spacer is too uncomfortable, place a cotton ball between the toes that are trying to cross, and if needed wrap a small amount of first aid tape around both toes to keep it in place. Exercises to keep the muscles in the bottoms of the feet and in the metatarsals soft and stretched including rolling on a tennis ball or using a resistance band can also help keep the muscles loose and pliable.

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