A hammer toe and a bunion are two different issues affecting the toes that have very similar symptoms, causes, and treatments. Both problems involve deformity of the bones in the toes. Both a hammer toe and a bunion can be the result of factors such as heredity, ill-fitting shoes, and muscle or ligament issues. In certain cases, the hammer toe may even be the result of the bunion. Conservative treatment may be used for either issue to help reduce associated pain, but the only true way to cure either one is through surgery.
Bone deformity is the underlying cause of both a hammer toe and a bunion. Also called hallux valgus, a bunion forms when the joint at the base of the big toe on the inside of the foot becomes enlarged and the toe itself rotates inward toward the other toes. A hammer toe, which is sometimes also called a claw toe or a mallet toe, is the result of the bones in the toe contracting permanently downward. While a bunion only affects the big toe, a hammer toe can occur in any of the toes.
The underlying causes of a hammer toe and a bunion can often be the same. There are frequently hereditary factors that seem to play a role in their development. Many people who wear tight, uncomfortable, or improperly fitted shoes develop them; they are often a problem for women who usually wear high heels. Imbalances, instability, or laxity in the muscles or ligaments supporting the toes may also be to blame for either condition. Sometimes, as a bunion worsens and the big toe turns and presses on the second toe, the second toe can then develop into a hammer toe.
Both a hammer toe and a bunion can cause discomfort or even pain for sufferers, and the appropriate treatment often depends on how much the condition affects the person's life. For those experiencing fairly minor discomfort, steps such as wearing comfortable, well-fitted shoes, custom orthotic devices, or pads to minimize rubbing may be enough. Soaking the feet in warm water or using over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs may be sufficient for pain relief. In cases where the deformity of the toe has progressed so far that it is causing constant, significant pain, surgery may be the best option; the procedures are fairly simple and easy to recover from for both conditions, and will resolve them permanently.