What is a Mallet Toe?

J.M. Willhite
J.M. Willhite

Mallet toe is a potentially painful joint deformity that affects the toes. Individuals may develop this progressive condition for a variety of reasons that often include ill-fitting footwear, injury, and disease. Usually, cases of mallet toe may be relieved with simple measures, including changing the type of shoes one wears. Individuals experiencing severe symptoms that impair toe functionality may undergo a surgical procedure to ease symptoms and increase flexibility.

Related to hammer toe, mallet toe affects the upper portion of the toe, whereas, hammer toe impacts the lower portion of the digit. Essentially, the only difference separating the two conditions is the location of the joint deformity and the appearance of the affected toe. Individuals who develop mallet toe may notice that the affected digit adopts a mallet-like appearance due to the curvature the deformity causes.

Though a majority of cases of mallet toe are triggered by regularly wearing footwear that cramps one’s toes, there are other situations that may contribute to the development of this condition. Individuals who have sustained an injury to their toe that compromised the bone, such as a fracture, often possess an increased risk for mallet toe. The presence of diseases that adversely affect muscle or nerve function may also place certain individuals at an increased risk for this type of joint deformity.

Aside from the mallet-like appearance an affected toe adopts, there are other signs and symptoms. With time, the flexibility of the affected toe becomes limited and its functionality impaired. As its flexibility diminishes, the toe may become more tender to the touch causing pain with movement. The skin on the affected toe may also become more susceptible to thickening and hardening, such as occurs with the development of calluses and corns.

Individuals with mallet toe are usually instructed to wear footwear that does not bind their toes together. More comfortable footwear allows one’s toes to lay more naturally with room to spread and stretch. In some cases, the progression of mallet toe eventually jeopardizes toe functionality by impairing the digit's ability to flex. When the condition progresses to the point where changing one’s footwear does not help alleviate discomfort, surgery may be necessary.

The type of surgical approach utilized is dependent on the severity of one’s symptoms. If the individual still possesses some flexibility and is experiencing moderate pain, he or she may undergo a procedure to straighten the affected digit. When the toe's functionality is completely compromised by rigidity, a portion of the bone within the toe may be removed to allow for straightening. Though each procedure is generally performed on an outpatient basis, both carry some risks that should be discussed with a qualified health care provider prior to pursuing either as a treatment option.

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