What Is a Mallet Toe?

Picture of a doctor holding a model of the foot bones.

A mallet toe is a condition that occurs when the distal interphalangeal joint within a toe (the one closest to the toenail) abnormally bends forward, causing the toe to curl under. In some cases, the joint will still be flexible and able to move; in other instances, the toe will essentially become frozen in a curled position. Mallet toe most commonly develops in the second toe (the one next to the big toe).

Mallet Toe vs. Hammer Toe

Many people think of mallet toes and hammer toes as being the same thing, using the terms interchangeably. However, while both conditions involve abnormal bending within the toes, they affect different toe joints. As was noted above, mallet toe causes the distal interphalangeal joint (the one nearest the toenail) to curl. Hammer toe, however, causes bending in the proximal interphalangeal joint (the middle one).

Mallet Toe Causes & Risk Factors

Mallet toe commonly occurs when the flexor digitorum longus—a muscle that runs from the tibia (shin bone) to the toes—becomes too tight, causing the distal interphalangeal joint to bend. It may also result from:

  • Arthritis
  • Bone deformities (for example, bones within the feet that are too short)
  • Muscle weakening
  • Toe injuries
  • Wearing shoes that are too tight, especially if they have high heels

Mallet Toe Symptoms

Mallet toe is primarily characterized by abnormal bending of the distal interphalangeal joint. This can cause the following symptoms in the affected toe:

  • Calluses
  • Corns
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Toenail thickening
  • Ulcers (this is especially common in individuals with diabetes)

Depending on their severity, mallet toe symptoms can make it difficult to wear shoes and walk comfortably.

Mallet Toe Treatment

In many cases, mallet toe symptoms can be relieved using conservative treatment methods. Depending on the particular symptoms you’re experiencing, an orthopedist may recommend:

  • Performing toe-stretching exercises
  • Using orthotic devices (shoe inserts)
  • Wearing shoes with more toe space
  • Undergoing corticosteroid injections
  • Smoothing any calluses
  • Wearing toe pads over any calluses or corns

However, if treatments like these fail to provide relief, or if your mallet toe is especially severe, then surgery may become necessary to straighten the toe. This may involve arthroplasty (removing a portion of the affected toe bone and realigning the remaining sections), tendon release (cutting a tendon that’s too tight), or tendon transfer (moving a tendon from the affected toe to another area of the foot).

Your Top Choice for Mallet Toe Treatment in the Durham, NC, Area

If you think you may have a mallet toe, you can rely on North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic for treatment. Based in Durham, NC, we’ve been assisting patients with a wide range of orthopedic concerns since our founding in 2003. During that time, we’ve earned a reputation for providing each patient we see with specialized care and personalized service, and you can rest assured that we’ll do the same for you.

Contact North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic today to schedule a consultation with one of our foot and ankle specialists. We’re open on weekdays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., and we’re pleased to offer same- and next-day availability.