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Hammer vs. Claw vs. Mallet Toes: What Is the Difference?

Learn about the differences between hammer, claw, and mallet toes, as well as what you can do at home to treat the conditions.

By Hosea Machio
Joel Taylor
Edited by Joel Taylor

Published December 28, 2021.

In hammer, claw, and mallet toes, the affected appendage is bent into an unusual position. The musculature that supports the toes becomes out of balance once the bone structure of the toes changes, causing them to bend into an abnormal position at one or more joints.

The 2nd toes are nearly always affected, rather than the big toe. Hammer, claw, and mallet toes may appear confusing and challenging to differentiate as they are almost similar. Defining each of them will make it easier to understand the differences between hammer, claw, and mallet toes.

Diagram showing the difference between hammertoe, claw toe, and mallet toe

What Is a Hammertoe?

A hammertoe is a malformation in which your toe bends or curls downward rather than pointing forward. Any toe on your foot can be affected by this condition, but it typically affects the second or third middle joints of the toe. Bunions often occur with the hammertoe.

What Is a Claw Toe?

A claw toe affects both joints of the metatarsal and can occur in any or all of the toes, making them curl downward as a result.

What Is a Mallet Toe?

An upward bend at the toe joint is referred to as a mallet toe. It may cause the toe to seem curled rather than flat. Mallet toes most commonly occur in the second toe at the joint adjacent to the tip. This is due to the fact that it is frequently the longest of the four little toes.

Treating Hammer, Claw, and Mallet Toes

Treatment is dependent on how far the toe deformity has progressed. Conditions affecting the toe joints need urgent treatment to avoid further injury. They can also be easily addressed without surgery if discovered early enough via the following methods:

  • Changing shoes Look for shoes with spacious toe boxes, low heels, and decent arch support. This helps prevent worsening of the conditions while it heals
  • Using toe tubes, arch supports, and orthotic inserts These can provide comfort and help fix toe issues by adding cushion and support to footwear.
  • Medication In case of pain, anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs can be used.

Exercises for Treating Hammer, Claw, and Mallet Toes

Toe joints can benefit from exercises that improve flexibility and strength. To stretch the toe joint, gently draw your toes out and hold for several seconds. Repeat this process numerous times throughout the day. Additionally, you can perform the following exercises:

  • Towel curls Place a towel flat under your feet and crumple it with your toes.
  • Picking up pebbles Try picking up as many pebbles as you can with your toes and dropping them into a cup.