As four-limbed vertebrates, we humans are a bit unusual for not having claws. Our fellow creatures find them useful for a wide range of tasks, including digging, climbing, hunting, and self-defense, but we have to be content with simple fingernails.
However, muscle imbalances can sometimes cause human toes to approximate the shape of a claw or talon, a condition known as claw toe, or claw foot. Rather than giving you the sudden ability to climb carpeted walls or harpoon fish, the result is usually pain and discomfort.
Explaining the Signs and Symptoms
Most people have three joints each in all four of their smaller toes—one at the base, one in the middle, and one at the tip. Unlike the similar hammertoes and mallet toes (which affect one joint per toe each), claw toes affect at least two and often all three: it arches upward at the base joint, turns downward in the center, and in many cases digs in again at the tip.
Aside from an unsightly appearance, they can cause a host of uncomfortable problems. Because the toes may scrape up against the roof of your shoe or dig into the sole, corns and blisters very commonly develop due to friction. In severe cases, pain or instability can make walking difficult.
The condition is progressive, which unfortunately means that doing nothing will not solve the problem—unless you take corrective measures, the deformity will only get worse. Claw toes starts out “flexible,” which means you can still bend the digits with your fingers even if the toe muscles can’t do it by themselves, but over time they will rigidly lock into place.
Digging Up the Main Causes
Like hammertoes and mallet toes, claw toes can be caused (or at least catalyzed) by footwear that doesn’t provide enough space in the front for digits to wiggle and flex. However, they are relatively more likely to trace back to an underlying medical condition. Nerve damage (such as from diabetes, a stroke, or Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease), circulatory problems (also related to diabetes, or perhaps a stroke), and inflammatory or autoimmune conditions (like rheumatoid arthritis) can all cause toes to claw. All of these conditions (as well as others) can unbalance muscles in the feet, which is ultimately the mechanical cause of the deformity. Alcohol abuse is often, though not always, a significant contributing factor.
What a Podiatrist Can Do For You
If you’re still in the flexible stage, we’ll prescribe some simple, non-invasive treatments to keep your condition from worsening and minimizing painful friction. These can range from wearing roomier shoes, to using splints or taping to keep digits in a straightened position, to doing basic exercises to strengthen toe muscles.
More rigid digits may require special shoes with extra depth, custom orthotics, or metatarsal pads that help minimize friction and redistribute your weight. If even these do not relieve your discomfort, surgical correction may be the only recourse.
Of course, if your claw toes are related to an underlying condition, such as alcoholism or diabetes, it will be important to carefully treat and manage these as well.
Don’t wait for your claw toes to become hard and rigid before asking a professional to dig you out. Visit Family Foot and Ankle Center in Cincinnati, Finneytown, Hamilton, Fairfield, or Florence at the first sign of trouble. Our expert doctors will give you the best possible shot at resolving your symptoms without having to resort to invasive or surgical procedures. You can set up an appointment online, or give us a call at (513) 728-4800 or (859) 282-1572.