Toe Joint & Nerve Disorders

  • Bunions
  • Hammer Toes
  • Neuromas
What Is a Bunion?

A bunion is a “bump” on the joint at the base of the big toe—the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint—that forms when the bone or tissue at the big toe joint moves out of place. The toe is forced to bend toward the others, causing an often painful lump of bone on the foot. Because this joint carries a lot of the body’s weight while walking, bunions can cause extreme pain if left untreated. The MTP joint itself may become stiff and sore, making even the wearing of shoes difficult or impossible. A bunion—from the Latin “bunio,” meaning enlargement—can also occur on the outside of the foot along the little toe, where it is called a “bunionette” or “tailor’s bunion”.

Causes

Bunions form when the normal balance of forces that is exerted on the joints and tendons of the foot becomes disrupted. This disruption can lead to instability in the joint and cause the deformity. Bunions are brought about by years of abnormal motion and pressure over the MTP joint. They are, therefore, a symptom of faulty foot development and are usually caused by the way we walk and our inherited foot type or our shoes.

Although bunions tend to run in families, it is the foot type that is passed down—not the bunion. Parents who suffer from poor foot mechanics can pass their problematic foot type on to their children, who in turn are prone to developing bunions. The abnormal functioning caused by this faulty foot development can lead to pressure being exerted on and within the foot, often resulting in bone and joint deformities such as bunions and hammertoes.

Other causes of bunions are foot injuries, neuromuscular disorders, or congenital deformities. People who suffer from flat feet or low arches are also prone to developing these problems, as are arthritic patients and those with inflammatory joint disease. Occupations that place undue stress on the feet are also a factor; ballet dancers, for instance, often develop the condition.

Wearing shoes that are too tight or cause the toes to be squeezed together is also a common factor, one that explains the high prevalence of the disorder among women.

Symptoms

The symptoms of a bunion include the following:

  • Development of a firm bump on the outside edge of the foot, at the base of the big toe
  • Redness, swelling, or pain at or near the MTP joint
  • Corns or other irritations caused by the overlap of the first and second toes
  • Restricted or painful motion of the big toe

 

Home Treatment

What can you do for relief?

  • Apply a commercial, non-medicated bunion pad around the bony prominence
  • Wear shoes with a wide and deep toe box
  • If your bunion becomes inflamed and painful, apply ice packs several times a day to reduce swelling
  • Avoid high-heeled shoes over two inches tall

 

When to Visit a Podiatrist

If pain persists, podiatric medical attention should be sought. Bunions tend to get larger and more painful if left untreated, making non-surgical treatment less of an option.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Treatment options vary with the type and severity of each bunion, although identifying the deformity early in its development is important in avoiding surgery. The primary goal of most early treatment options is to relieve pressure on the bunion and halt the progression of the joint deformity.

A podiatrist may recommend these treatments:

Padding and Taping: Often the first step in a treatment plan, padding the bunion minimizes pain and allows the patient to continue a normal, active life. Taping helps keep the foot in a normal position, thus reducing stress and pain.

Medication: Anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone injections are often prescribed to ease the acute pain and inflammation caused by joint deformities.

Physical Therapy: Often used to provide relief of the inflammation and bunion pain. Ultrasound therapy is a popular technique for treating bunions and their associated soft tissue involvement.

Orthotics: Shoe inserts may be useful in controlling foot function and may reduce symptoms and prevent worsening of the deformity.

Surgical Options: When early treatments fail or the bunion progresses past the threshold for such options, podiatric surgery may become necessary to relieve pressure and repair the toe joint. Several surgical procedures are available to the podiatrist. The surgery will remove the bony enlargement, restore the normal alignment of the toe joint, and relieve pain.

A simple bunionectomy, in which only the bony prominence is removed, may be used for the less severe deformity. Severe bunions may require a more involved procedure, which includes cutting the bone and realigning the joint. Recuperation takes time, and swelling and some discomfort are common for several weeks following surgery. Pain, however, is easily managed with medications prescribed by your podiatrist.

Prevention

There are some steps that may help prevent, or at least slow, the progression of bunions:

  • Avoid shoes with a narrow toe box
  • If your foot flattens excessively, make sure you wear supportive shoes, and if necessary, get custom orthotics from your podiatrist
  • See your podiatrist at the first signs or symptoms of a bunion deformity, as early treatment may stop or slow its progression
What is a Hammer Toe?

A hammer toe is a contracture, or bending, of the toe at the first joint of the digit, called the proximal interphalangeal joint. This bending causes the toe to appear like an upside-down V when looked at from the side. Any toe can be involved, but the condition usually affects the second through fifth toes, known as the lesser digits. Hammer toes are more common in females than males.

There are two different types:

Flexible Hammer Toes: These hammer toes are less serious because they can be diagnosed and treated while still in the developmental stage. They are called flexible hammer toes because they are still moveable at the joint.

Rigid Hammer Toes: This variety is more developed and more serious than the flexible condition. Rigid hammer toes can be seen in patients with severe arthritis, for example, or in patients who wait too long to seek professional treatment. The tendons in a rigid hammer toe have become tight, and the joint misaligned and immobile, making surgery the usual course of treatment.

Causes

A hammer toe develops because of an abnormal balance of the muscles in the toes. This abnormal balance causes increased pressures on the tendons and joints of the toe, leading to its contracture. Heredity and trauma can also lead to the formation of a hammer toe. Arthritis is another factor, because the balance around the toe in people with arthritis is disrupted. Wearing shoes that are too tight and cause the toes to squeeze can also cause a hammer toe to form.

Symptoms

The symptoms of a hammer toe include the following:

  • Pain at the top of the bent toe upon pressure from footwear
  • Formation of corns on the top of the joint
  • Redness and swelling at the joint contracture
  • Restricted or painful motion of the toe joint
  • Pain in the ball of the foot at the base of the affected toe

 

Home Treatment

What can you do for relief?

  • Apply a commercial, non-medicated hammer toe pad around the bony prominence of the hammer toe to decrease pressure on the area.
  • Wear a shoe with a deep toe box.
  • If the hammer toe becomes inflamed and painful, apply ice packs several times a day to reduce swelling.
  • Avoid heels more than two inches tall.
  • A loose-fitting pair of shoes can also help protect the foot while reducing pressure on the affected toe, making walking a little easier until a visit to your podiatrist can be arranged. While this treatment will make the hammer toe feel better, it is important to remember that it does not cure the condition. A trip to the podiatrist’s office will be necessary to repair the toe to allow for normal foot function.
  • Avoid wearing shoes that are too tight or narrow. Children should have their shoes properly fitted on a regular basis, as their feet can often outgrow their shoes rapidly.

 

When to Visit a Podiatrist

If pain persists, see a podiatrist. If left untreated, hammer toes tend to become rigid, making non-surgical treatment less of an option.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The treatment options vary with the type and severity of each hammer toe, although identifying the deformity early in its development is important to avoid surgery. Your podiatric physician will examine and X-ray the affected area and recommend a treatment plan specific to your condition.

Padding and Taping: Often padding and taping are the first steps in a treatment plan. Padding the hammer toe prominence minimizes pain and allows the patient to continue a normal, active life. Taping may change the imbalance around the toes and thus relieve the stress and pain.

Medication: Anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone injections can be prescribed to ease acute pain and inflammation caused by the joint deformity.

Orthotic Devices: Custom shoe inserts made by your podiatrist may be useful in controlling foot function. An orthotic device may reduce symptoms and prevent the worsening of the hammer toe deformity.

Surgical Options: Several surgical procedures are available to the podiatric physician. For less severe deformities, the surgery will remove the bony prominence and restore normal alignment of the toe joint, thus relieving pain. Severe hammer toes, which are not fully reducible, may require more complex surgical procedures.

Recuperation takes time, and some swelling and discomfort are common for several weeks following surgery. Any pain, however, is easily managed with medications prescribed by your podiatrist.

Prevention

There are several things you can do to help prevent hammer toes from forming or progressing:

  • Wear supportive shoes to help prevent deformities. Hammer toes are often related to faulty foot mechanics, especially foot flattening.
  • Wear custom orthotics prescribed by your podiatrist. Orthotics may slow the progression or prevent the development of hammer toes.
  • Avoid shoes with narrow or pointed toe boxes that can compress the toes.
What is a Neuroma?

A neuroma is a painful condition, also referred to as a “pinched nerve” or a nerve tumor. It is a benign growth of nerve tissue frequently found between the third and fourth toes. It brings on pain, a burning sensation, tingling, or numbness between the toes and in the ball of the foot.

The principal symptom associated with a neuroma is pain between the toes while walking. Those suffering from the condition often find relief by stopping their walk, taking off their shoe, and rubbing the affected area. At times, the patient will describe the pain as similar to having a stone in his or her shoe. The vast majority of people who develop neuromas are women.

Causes

Although the exact cause for this condition is unclear, a number of factors can contribute to the formation of a neuroma:

  • Biomechanical deformities, such as a high-arched foot or a flat foot, can lead to the formation of a neuroma. These foot types bring on instability around the toe joints, leading to the development of the condition.
  • Trauma can cause damage to the nerve, resulting in inflammation or swelling of the nerve.
  • Improper footwear that causes the toes to be squeezed together is problematic. Avoid high-heeled shoes higher than two inches. Shoes at this height can increase pressure on the forefoot area.
  • Repeated stress, common to many occupations, can create or aggravate a neuroma.

 

Symptoms

The symptoms of a neuroma include the following:

  • Pain in the forefoot and between the toes
  • Tingling and numbness in the ball of the foot
  • Swelling between the toes
  • Pain in the ball of the foot when weight is placed on it

 

Home Treatment

What can you do for relief?

  • Wear shoes with plenty of room for the toes to move, low heels, and laces or buckles that allow for width adjustment.
  • Wear shoes with thick, shock-absorbent soles, as well as proper insoles that are designed to keep excessive pressure off of the foot.
  • High-heeled shoes over two inches tall should be avoided whenever possible because they place undue strain on the forefoot.
  • Resting the foot and massaging the affected area can temporarily alleviate neuroma pain. Use an ice pack to help to dull the pain and improve comfort.
  • Use over-the-counter shoe pads. These pads can relieve pressure around the affected area.

 

When to Visit a Podiatrist

Podiatric medical care should be sought at the first sign of pain or discomfort. If left untreated, neuromas tend to get worse.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Treatment options vary with the severity of each neuroma, and identifying the neuroma early in its development is important to avoid surgical correction.

For simple, undeveloped neuromas, a pair of thick-soled shoes with a wide toe box is often adequate treatment to relieve symptoms, allowing the condition to diminish on its own. For more severe conditions, however, additional treatment or surgery may be necessary to remove the tumor.

The primary goal of most early treatment regimens is to relieve pressure on areas where a neuroma develops. Your podiatric physician will examine and likely X-ray the affected area and suggest a treatment plan that best suits your individual case.

Padding and Taping: Special padding at the ball of the foot may change the abnormal foot function and relieve the symptoms caused by the neuroma.

Medication: Anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone injections can be prescribed to ease acute pain and inflammation caused by the neuroma.

Orthotics: Custom shoe inserts made by your podiatrist may be useful in controlling foot function. Orthotics may reduce symptoms and prevent the worsening of the condition.

Surgical Options: When early treatments fail and the neuroma progresses past the threshold for such options, podiatric surgery may become necessary. The procedure, which removes the inflamed and enlarged nerve, can usually be conducted on an outpatient basis, with a recovery time that is often just a few weeks. Your podiatric physician will thoroughly describe the surgical procedures to be used and the results you can expect. Any pain following surgery is easily managed with medications prescribed by your podiatrist.

Prevention

Although the exact causes of neuromas are not completely known, the following preventive steps may help:

  • Make sure your exercise shoes have enough room in the front part of the shoe and that your toes are not excessively compressed.
  • Wear shoes with adequate padding in the ball of the foot.
  • Avoid prolonged time in shoes with a narrow toe box or excessive heel height (greater than two inches).