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Foot Deformity Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated October 20, 2021

Foot deformity quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your foot deformity.

Understand your foot deformity symptoms, including 6 causes & common questions.

10 most common causes

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Bunion
Gout
Psoriatic Arthritis
Illustration of various health care options.
ankle arthritis
Broken Ankle
Pes Cavus
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Illustration of various health care options.
Hammer toes (contracted toe)
Illustration of a person thinking with cross bandaids.
Flat feet
Illustration of a doctor beside a bedridden patient.
Reactive arthritis

Foot deformity quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your foot deformity.

Take foot deformity quiz

Foot deformity symptoms

Foot deformities are a wide array of conditions that affect the bones and tendons in the feet. A foot deformity can be as common as a bunion or a hammer toe, or rarer like fused toes (tarsal coalition), a club foot, a flat foot, mallet toes and various other foot conditions.

The symptoms and names of various foot deformities are listed below.

Characteristics of toe deformities or certain areas of the foot

Foot deformities can affect the foot as a whole but be more localized to a certain area or the toes.

  • Bunions: Picture women wearing shoes very pinched at the toe and how it would push the big toe inward. Eventually, what happens in both men and women who wear cramped-box shoes, is that as the top of the toe moves in and the joint at the base of the toe protrudes outward, causing pain as shoes wear against the protrusion. It can also throw off the gait and cause imbalance.
  • Claw toe: Claw toes are ones which begin to turn downward, resembling a bird's claw. This typically occurs on the smaller toes, not the larger ones. Claw toes can become a permanent condition if left untreated.
  • Hammer toe(s): When you wear tight, uncomfortable shoes too often, this can cause the toes to become permanently bent, or "propped" up at the joint. This condition is called a hammer toe.
  • Mallet toes: The opposite of hammer toes. Here, the toes dip downward at the joint, causing great discomfort when wearing shoes.
  • Tarsal coalition: When a child is still growing, some of their toes can fuse together, especially at the upper part of the toe, where the toe joins the rest of the foot. This condition needs to be addressed immediately to ensure the child is not permanently affected.

Characteristics of foot deformities affecting the entire foot structure

Foot deformities can also be more widespread, affecting the entire foot structure.

  • Clubfoot: With a clubfoot, the muscles on one side of the foot are shorter than the other, causing the foot to turn sharply inward. This forces the person to walk on the outside of the foot. A clubfoot deformity must be treated when the child is still an infant, to prevent permanent deformity.
  • Flat feet (Pes planus): A flat foot has no arch at all. A flat foot is the most common structural deformity of the foot. It can be a congenital or acquired condition. Many people who carry very heavy weights or become obese can suffer from a flat foot from the pressure placed upon the arches. Injury to the posterior tibial tendon of the foot can also cause arches to fall and a flat foot condition to develop.

Causes of a foot deformity

Foot deformities can be acquired or congenital.

  • Lifestyle habits: Acquired foot disorders may arise because of wearing ill-fitting footwear, such as hammertoes and bunions, or because of gaining a lot of weight swiftly (bone spurs).
  • Injury: If you've broken one or several toes, for example, you are more likely than others to develop a condition such as a hammer toe.
  • Genetics: With regard to congenital disorders, like a club foot or fused toes, these are typically caused by simple genetics.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Foot deformity quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your foot deformity.

Take foot deformity quiz

Reactive arthritis

Reactive arthritis is a condition in which the joints become inflamed, causing pain and swelling. It is often triggered by an infection (often a gastrointestinal or genitourinary infection). It can last up to six months or a year.

You should consider visiting a healthcare provider in the next two weeks to discuss your symptoms. Your provider can evaluate for reactive arthritis with a review of your symptoms and medical history. Blood tests and imaging may also be performed. Once diagnosed, it can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications until it resolves by itself.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a complication of psoriasis, which causes the skin to become thickened, red, and scaly. Arthritis may appear before or after the psoriasis appears.

Both conditions are autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, and are thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors.

Most susceptible are people from 30 to 50 years of age with a family history of the disease and who already have psoriasis.

Symptoms include the joints on one or both sides of the body becoming painful, swollen, and hot; swelling and deformity of the fingers and toes; pitted, flaking fingernails; foot pain in the heels and soles; and joint pain in the low back pain.

It is important to seek treatment, as psoriatic arthritis can permanently damage the joints, eyes, and heart.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-rays, and MRI. Blood tests and joint fluid tests can confirm psoriatic arthritis.

Treatment includes over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; anti-rheumatic medication; immunosuppressants; and steroid injections for the joints. Surgery to replace damaged joints may also be tried.

Pes cavus

Pes cavus is a high arch of the foot that does not flatten with weight bearing. This foot type can cause pain.

You should visit your primary care physician if you are experiencing a lot of foot pain. Surgical treatment is only used when there is severe pain.

Hammer toes (contracted toe)

Hammer toe is a deformity of the second, third or fourth toe causing it to be permanently bent, resembling a hammer. It most frequently results from wearing poorly fitted shoes that force the toe into a bent position.

You should visit your primary care physician if you are experiencing toe pain and/or concerned about the look of your toes. It can be corrected with physical therapy, new shoes or foot surgery in severe cases.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: toe pain, hammer toe

Symptoms that always occur with hammer toes (contracted toe): hammer toe

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Gout

Gout is a form of arthritis that causes sudden pain, stiffness, and swelling in a joint. The big toe is often affected, but it can also happen in other joints. Sometimes, the joint gets hot and red. Gout is caused by uric acid crystals. Risk factors for gout include obesity, eating a lot of meat, drinking beer, age (older), sex (male), and family history.

You should see a healthcare professional to see if uric acid crystals have accumulated in the joint. Gout can be diagnosed based on symptoms, but it's also common to take a sample of joint fluid for testing. A physician can give you a prescription for anti-inflammatory medications and/ or pain medications. There are also medications to stop your body from making too much uric acid. Sometimes, a shot in the joint can help with symptoms also.

Flat feet

Pes planus, or flat feet, are a common and usually painless condition where the arches on the inside of the feet are flattened. Usually this is due to poor arch development during childhood.

You do not need treatment if your flat feet do not cause any pain. You may find it helpful to wear arch supports (orthotic devices) that can be bought over the counter to relieve any pain due to flat feet.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: pain in the top of the foot, pain in the middle of the foot

Urgency: Wait and watch

Calcaneus fracture

Calcaneus fractures occur when a force that is stronger than the calcaneus itself is applied to the bone. s are rare, although they are the most commonly fractured tarsal bone. These fractures can occur in many different situations, but most commonly occur in high-energy trauma situations such as car crashes or falls from heights (ex. a ladder or roof).

Symptoms generally depend on the severity of the fracture but usually include significant pain, swelling, bruising, numbness, limited mobility, and limping, among others.

Calcaneus fractures can lead to long-term deformity and require good follow-up and management. Treatment options include methods to reduce pain and restore function through surgery or physical therapy.

You should seek immediate medical care at an urgent care clinic or ER. A doctor will confirm the diagnosis with an X-Ray. This condition can be treated non-surgically with a cast. However, if the bones have shifted out of place, surgery may be needed.

Bunion

A bunion is a deformity of the joint at the base of the big toe. Certain footwear styles can worsen s.

You should visit your primary care doctor, who can help you pick out good footwear. Surgery is considered if footwear change does not control pain symptoms.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: bump on outside edge of big toe, big toe pain, toe pain that gets worse when wearing closed-toe shoes, foot ulcer, pain at the base of the toe

Symptoms that always occur with bunion: bump on outside edge of big toe

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Broken ankle

An ankle fracture is a break in 1 or more ankle bones.

You should seek immediate medical care. The ankle will likely be splinted, but in severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: difficulty walking, constant ankle pain, swollen ankle, pain in one ankle, ankle pain from an injury

Symptoms that always occur with broken ankle: pain in one ankle, swollen ankle, ankle pain from an injury, constant ankle pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Ankle arthritis

Arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. Because the feet and ankles have many small joints and carry the weight of the body, they are often the first place that arthritis appears.

Ankle arthritis is caused by a breakdown in the protective cartilage at the end of each joint, so that the bones begin to wear against each other and the joint becomes stiff and painful. This breakdown may be due to simple wear and tear; an injury; or from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition which causes the body to break down its own cartilage.

Symptoms include swelling, warmth, and redness in the joint, and pain with movement or with pressure on the joint.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-rays, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for arthritis, but treatment is important because the symptoms can be managed to prevent further damage, ease pain, and improve quality of life. Treatment involves physical therapy, pain-relieving medications, and sometimes surgery to help repair damaged joints.

Foot deformity quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your foot deformity.

Take foot deformity quiz

Foot deformity treatments and relief

Physical therapy, in addition to wearing devices to help to correct the deformity, is the basic courses of treatment for less serious foot deformities [4]. Surgery is required for conditions like clubfoot or fused toes [5].

  • Corrective devices: Foot deformities can be treated through bracing, casting, and wearing supportive devices.
  • Surgery: For more serious disorders, like fused toes, claw toes, or a clubfoot, surgery is necessary early in childhood to prevent permanent disability.
  • Other braces and toe separators: Some acquired conditions, like bunions, can be corrected through braces or plastic toe separators that gradually separate the big toe from the second toe and back into its normal position. These are worn while you sleep, slowly correcting the inward-turning toe, which alleviates the protruding bone from rubbing against shoes.
  • Exercises or stretches: Often for conditions like hammer toes, a podiatrist might recommend exercises such as picking up marbles with the toe, stretching the toes manually by hand several times a day, or wearing straps and other foot devices that help correct the bent part of the toe.

FAQs about foot deformity

Can diabetes lead to to a foot deformity?

Yes, diabetes can lead to a deformity called a Charcot foot. This deformity comes from loss of the ability to sense feeling and pressure on the foot. To prevent deformity to the foot, it is necessary to seek a physician and adequate primary care to properly and adequately manage diagnosis your diabetes.

How can arthritis cause a foot deformity?

Arthritis causes a foot deformity through inflammation and eventually breakdown of the joints of the foot. There are different types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis breaks down joints and bone by causing inflammation to erode healthy bone. Osteoarthritis occurs with wear and tear over a lifetime, and after the outer layer of bone is eroded, this can cause a joint space to collapse causing a deformity.

Does persistent wearing of high heels lead to a foot deformity?

Yes, persistent wearing of high heels especially heels that are too tight can lead to a splaying of the joint at the base of the big toe or the pinky toe. It is particularly aggravated by wearing narrow shoes or narrow high heels. It can also lead to formation of a bunion as the big toe is pressed inward and the weight of the body is forced onto the ball of the big toe.

Are all foot deformities painful?

No, all foot deformities are not painful. In fact, some foot deformities can be caused by a loss of sensation in the foot. Diabetic foot deformities, like a Charcot joint, are caused by loss of pressure sensation in the foot of a diabetic patient. While they can become painful later on from damage to the bone, they are often not painful early on.

Questions your doctor may ask about foot deformity

  • Are you having any difficulty walking?
  • How would you describe your walk?
  • Can you stand on both legs?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Lesser toe deformities. Oxford University Hospitals/NHS. OUH NHS Link
  2. Foot Pain and Problems. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  3. Pediatric Foot Deformities: An Overview. Hospital for Special Surgery. HSS Link
  4. Matanovic DD, Vukasinovic ZS, Zivkovic ZM, Spasovski DV, Bascarevic ZLj, Slavkovic NS. Physical treatment of foot deformities in childhood. Acta Chir Iugosl. 2011;58(3):113-6.PubMed Link
  5. Gore AI, Spencer JP. The Newborn Foot. Am Fam Physician. 2004 Feb 15;69(4):865-872. AAFP Link