Health Team

Hammertoes corrected by surgical implants

Posted October 22, 2009 3:58 p.m. EDT
Updated October 22, 2009 6:22 p.m. EDT

A joint distortion called hammertoes is one of the most common foot problems, and surgery to correct it involves a long, painful recovery.

A new surgical implant, though, could mean less pain and less time off their feet for those who want to get rid of their hammertoes.

In a hammertoe, a joint is bent, forcing the toe to point out in that direction.

Coleen Schwoerke inherited her mother's hammertoes – one on each foot. A painful stress fracture in her right foot exacerbated the problem.

"I had noticed that my toes had started to spread and that the second toe was starting to go over my right big toe," she said.

Schwoerke knew she needed surgery, but could only think of what her mother endured with an older, standard technique.

"Our older way of doing (it), which we will still occasionally use, involves a pin coming out of the tip of the toe," said orthopedic surgeon Dr. Selene Parekh, with Duke University Medical Center.

The procedure required six weeks of recovery before the pin was removed and the joints were fused.

Schwoerke said such a long period of immobilization didn't fit with her life.

"In my job, I need to be mobile, and I didn't want a long, long recovery time," she said.

Parekh offered to do a smart toe implant, in which a tiny device is laid in the two bones of the affected joint.

"What we do with the smart toe device is we fuse the toe in its normal bent posture of about 10 degrees," said Parekh. The body's heat expands the device in the joint, freezing it in a more natural angle.

Three months after getting a smart toe implant in her right foot, Schwoerke got one in her left foot. After each surgery, she was off crutches and walking comfortably after five days.

"It's been so much easier than I ever thought it could be," she said.

Parekh said that many people with hammertoes can avoid surgery. They can wear more spacious shoes or get physical therapy.