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How to Fix Mallet Toe: Surgical and Nonsurgical Management

A type of foot deformity which affects your toe joints, mallet toe is associated with certain symptoms and underlying causes. Next, Flo delves deeper into the surgical as well as nonsurgical mallet toe treatment options currently available.

What is mallet toe?

Mallet toe affects the toe joint that sits closest to your toenail. Instead of lying flat, the joint is abnormally bent, and tends to take on a curled appearance. When the deformity first develops, your toe joint is still movable. But over time, the tendons in your toe tighten up and it becomes permanently stuck in this bent position. Mallet toe can cause pain, redness, swelling, and inflexibility. It might also trigger multiple complications.

If you’ve been diagnosed with mallet toe, you may have trouble finding shoes that fit properly. When the problem joint rubs against the inside of your shoe, it often creates a corn or callus (i.e., areas of thick, hardened skin). Corns and calluses are uncomfortable and unsightly, and in those with diabetes, they could potentially lead to toe ulcers or open sores.

Hammertoe vs mallet toe

What’s the difference between hammertoe and mallet toe? In both cases, the affected toe joint exhibits an abnormal bend. However, the primary difference between hammertoe and mallet toe lies in exactly which toe joint is affected. 

When it comes to hammertoe vs mallet toe, the former condition targets your toe’s middle or proximal interphalangeal joints. The latter condition, in contrast, impacts your toe joints closest to the nail (i.e., distal interphalangeal joints). Note that claw toe, another related deformity, occurs when your toe is curled at both of these joints.

Causes of mallet toe

Mallet toe can be brought on by a number of things. It might be a response to trauma, muscle imbalances, genetic conditions, or even wearing improperly fitted shoes. Shoes that usually crowd your toes, such as high heels or anything with a tight toe box, force your toes into a curled position. Eventually, you’ll notice your toes remain curled even when you’re not wearing them. 

Other explanations for mallet toe include trauma, like stubbing or breaking your toe. The injury makes you more susceptible to developing mallet toe in the future. Muscle imbalances, namely weakness in your toe muscle, push on your tendons and joints, encouraging your toe to contract. Genetically speaking, it’s even possible to be born with mallet toe. 

Likelihood of developing mallet toe

While no one is 100 percent safe from mallet toe, certain factors may increase your chances of getting it. They include age, sex, toe length, and specific health conditions. 

Women are more frequently affected than men, as are older individuals. Furthermore, having a second toe that’s longer than your big toe raises your likelihood of having mallet toe and hammertoe. Chronic conditions like arthritis and diabetes render you more susceptible as well. 

How to fix mallet toe 

Depending on the severity of your mallet toe symptoms, your doctor may recommend either nonsurgical mallet toe treatment or mallet toe surgery.

Surgical treatment 

Advanced cases, especially when more conservative approaches fail to relieve mallet toe symptoms, could require mallet toe surgery.

If your toe is stiffened and permanently bent, a same-day straightening procedure will be performed in an outpatient setting. Your surgeon releases the tight tendon that’s holding your toe in an abnormal position. Or, they may instead choose to remove a small piece of bone from your toe to help it lie flat.  

After mallet toe surgery, you’ll be able to walk, but must keep your foot elevated. Don’t go for any long hikes or runs while you’re healing as running puts added pressure on your joints.

Complications from mallet toe surgery include pain, numbness, or infection. Also, there’s always a chance that the toe deformity will reappear, especially if you keep wearing poorly fitted shoes.

Nonsurgical treatment

Hoping for an effective alternative to mallet toe surgery? Consider wearing comfier, better fitting shoes, using a mallet toe splint, or performing toe exercises. 

Select shoes with roomy toe boxes that don’t compress your toes. The tip of your longest toe should be a half-inch away from the front of your shoe. Your doctor might suggest orthotics or pads to take pressure off your mallet toe as well. 

A mallet toe splint or mallet toe straightener, on the other hand, holds your toe straight and stretches the tight tendons. Over-the-counter mallet toe splints are available at most drugstores. 

Lastly, mallet toe exercises can stretch and strengthen your toe muscles. For example, your doctor may ask you to point or curl your toes up and down, pick up marbles, or grab small towels with your toes. 

Ways to prevent mallet toe

To avoid developing the dreaded mallet toe, opt for shoes with low heels and wide toe boxes. Steer clear of shoes that hurt your feet or feel too narrow or short.

Your foot size sometimes changes as you age, so measure your feet periodically to ensure you’re buying the right size. If one foot is bigger than the other, choose a pair that fits the larger foot.

To avoid developing the dreaded mallet toe, opt for shoes with low heels and wide toe boxes. Steer clear of shoes that hurt your feet or feel too narrow or short.

Since swelling occurs throughout the day, it’s best to shop for shoes in the evening. If you’re stuck with an uncomfortably snug pair, such as for a special occasion, a shoe repair store might be able to stretch them. 

Aside from preventing mallet toe, wearing the right shoes also protects you from many other foot, heel, and ankle problems. Shin splints, for example, are a painful injury that runners often experience due to improper footwear. 


Mallet toe is a deformity impacting one or more of your toe joints. If you’ve noticed your joint is abnormally bent, talk to your doctor. They’ll diagnose your condition and if necessary, recommend appropriate nonsurgical or surgical treatment.











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