Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disorder that impacts movement—it can affect nearly the entire body by causing stiffness, slow movement, muscle contractions, and most famously, tremor. But on top of these better known symptoms, experts say there's another little-known way that Parkinson's can affect the body, and if you notice it, it may be an early indicator of the condition. The symptom is known to appear in the feet, beginning subtly and becoming progressively worse over time. Read on to find out which podiatric change may mean you should be screened for PD, and why this surprising symptom occurs.
If you notice that your toes look "clawed," it may be due to Parkinson's.
Few people make the connection between podiatric symptoms and neurological disease, but experts say that the two can be interrelated. Specifically, the Parkinson's Foundations says that "curled, clenched toes or a painful cramped foot are tell-tale signs of dystonia," a common early symptom of PD in which the muscles contract involuntarily.
However, it's not just the muscles in the feet that affect the toes—the core and back muscles that affect your posture can also cause clawing and related conditions. "Many people with Parkinson's gradually develop a stooped posture, which affects the feet," explains the British health charity Parkinson's U.K. "Your body compensates for your weight being held more to the front of your feet, and causes your toes to 'claw' as they grip the ground or your footwear. Over time, your toes get stuck in this position and cannot flatten properly to help you keep your balance," their experts explain.
The first step is determining your exact condition.
If you notice an odd curvature in your toes, experts say you should first speak with a doctor. They can help decipher if you have claw toes, hammertoes, or mallet toes, three very similar conditions that are difficult for non-medical professionals to distinguish between.
"Hammertoes and claw toes are similar conditions that cause an unnatural bend of the toes of the foot. Both conditions can affect the movement of the toes and can cause a deformity of the foot," explains the medical site of Bruce Scudday, DPM, a Texas-based podiatrist. "Hammertoe causes the toes to bend downward at the middle toe joint making it difficult to flex the foot and move the toes. Claw toes resemble a claw where the toes of the foot bend upward from the joint at the ball of the foot and bend downwards at the middle joint," he adds. According to the Cleveland Clinic, mallet toes look similar to most patients, but specifically occur when there is "a bend in just the last joint."
You may notice these other symptoms.
If you suspect claw toes, hammertoes, or mallet toes, you should look out for additional symptoms that may corroborate the theory. You may notice that in addition to your toes looking bent, you experience pain in the affected toes, loss of flexibility in that area, visible deformity of the foot, swelling, redness, corns, or calluses, says Scudday.
The Cleveland Clinic adds that you may be able to determine how serious or far along the condition is by how flexible or rigid the toes feel. If "your toes still flex at the joints, although they're stiff," this is the more flexible, early stage. If they have become rigid to the point of little movement, you've likely already progressed to a later stage.
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
These treatments and interventions may help.
Interventions tend to be most successful in the earlier stages, so you should bring your symptoms to your doctor's attention "as you notice that you're having trouble flexing the joints of your toes," says the Cleveland Clinic.
Several treatment options may be available, which you can utilize in addition to pain management or anti-inflammatory medication, explains Scudday. "For more extreme or painful cases that do not respond to conservative treatment, surgery may be recommended as an option. Both hammertoe and claw toe can be surgically reconstructed and realigned into proper position or the entire toe joint can be replaced," says the podiatrist. The patient may also consider wearing different shoes, padding their shoes, wearing arch support inserts, or practicing toe-strengthening exercises as a form of physical therapy.
And, of course, be sure to speak with your doctor about the underlying cause for the changes in your toes. If a neurological disease such as Parkinson's is responsible, timely intervention for that condition may significantly improve your quality of life.