Background: Lesser toe surgery is among the most conducted interventions in general orthopedic practice. However, the definitions of hammer toe and claw toe are not uniform. The objective of this literature study is to propose clear definitions for these deformities to establish unambiguous communication.
Methods: A literature search was performed in the PubMed database (May 2006). Of 81 eligible articles, 42 that stated a clear definition of hammer toe or claw toe were selected.
Results: In all 35 articles in which hammer toe was clearly defined, flexion in the proximal interphalangeal joint was part of the definition. Seventeen articles (49%) defined hammer toe as a combination of metatarsophalangeal extension and proximal interphalangeal flexion. Thirteen articles showed flexion of the proximal interphalangeal joint as the single criterion. Twenty-three articles with a clear definition of claw toe were selected. Twenty-one articles (91%) showed metatarsophalangeal extension as part of the claw toe deformity. Twelve articles (52%) regarded metatarsophalangeal extension and flexion of the proximal interphalangeal and distal interphalangeal joints as the essential characteristics. Seven articles described a claw toe as metatarsophalangeal extension with flexion in the proximal interphalangeal joint.
Conclusions: There are variations in the definitions of lesser toe deformities in the literature. We propose that extension of the metatarsophalangeal joint is the discriminating factor and essential characteristic for claw toe. Claw toe and hammer toe should be characterized by flexion in the proximal interphalangeal joint, which is the single criterion for a hammer toe. The flexibility of these joints could be a basic factor in discriminating between these deformities. The development of these deformities should be regarded as a continuum in the same pathophysiologic process.