Many people have the mistaken belief that a bunion is a growth or cyst that develops on the side of the foot and will go away eventually. In reality, a bunion is a deformity in the big toe joint that will not self-correct and could continue to get worse until your other toes are affected, and you find it difficult to walk. Before you get to that stage, we encourage you to see a podiatrist if you suspect you have a bunion so that you can keep all of your options—from conservative to cutting-edge—open. Learn everything you need to know about bunions from experienced podiatrists here.
How Can You Tell If You Have a Bunion?
Well before you experience any pain or discomfort, you can see the beginnings of a bunion. If your big toe angles in towards your second toe and there is a bump at the base of your big toe on the inside of your foot, you likely have a bunion. This might not affect you in any significant way—yet—but it’s important to be aware of what’s happening because it will undoubtedly get worse over time.
So, what exactly is happening when your big toe bends in? It’s actually an alignment problem between the first long bone of the foot—the metatarsal—and the first long bone of the big toe—the phalanx. This joint is known as the metatarsophalangeal joint (MTJ). As the metatarsal pushes out, the phalanx angles in, hinging at the MTJ. The bump or bulge on the inside of your foot is the MTJ out of alignment. The medical term for a bunion is hallux (big toe) valgus (outward angulation of a segment of bone or joint). The misaligned joint can lead to the following problems:
- Pain. Any time your bones and joints are not aligned as they should be, you could experience pain. Whether you only notice it when you are doing particular activities, or you have a constant achiness in the joint, the pain could get to the point where it prevents you from doing what you want to do.
- Limited mobility. Believe it or not, your toes are almost always at work keeping you balanced. A crooked MTJ could prevent your big toe from doing its job and make it difficult to participate in a sport or fitness activity.
- Inflammation. A deformed MTJ could rub against the fluid-filled pads inside your joint known as the bursae. This can trigger bursitis, which can be extremely painful.
- Shoes not fitting. If the bulge on the side of your foot is large, you might not be able to fit comfortably in your regular shoes. Because bunions are so common, you can find particular lines of shoes that offer a wide toe box to accommodate bunions, but the selection is limited.
- Corns & blisters. If your shoes are too tight in the toe box because of a bunion, you could develop a blister where the shoe rubs on the bump. Over time, you could develop a callus or corn in the area.
- Hammertoes. When the big toe is out of alignment, that can also affect the second, third, and fourth toes, causing them to curve downward into what’s known as a hammertoe. Hammertoes are even more difficult to fit into shoes.
While the bunion itself may or may not cause pain and discomfort, these other effects could make your life miserable.
What Caused My Bunion?
The most likely culprit if you have bunions is genetics. Whether your genes caused the poor foot biomechanics that resulted in a misaligned big toe joint or they caused the bunion directly, there’s no way to know for sure, nor does it matter. The fact is, bunions run in families. Over 90 percent of bunion diagnoses are in women, so simply being female puts you at higher risk. In some cases, a specific traumatic or overuse injury at the base of the big toe could have destabilized the joint and caused the bunions, but this is not common. While the assumption that narrow shoes and high heels cause bunions has mostly been debunked, poor shoe choices can make an existing bunion worse.
What Treatments Are Available to Fix Bunions?
If you have been diagnosed with a bunion, it’s important to understand that there is no way to reverse the damage to the MTJ and fix the misalignment—at least not yet! The only way to get rid of the bump on the side of your foot permanently so that your shoes fit and you don’t get blisters is to undergo a surgical procedure, which we’ll discuss in a minute. If the bunion is not preventing you from working, exercising, and relaxing, you might not need to do anything for the time being. If you are in pain, some conservative measures that could offer relief include:
- Taping or splinting. If your MTJ is still pretty flexible, wearing a splint at night or taping your toe into a straight position during certain activities could relieve pain and help with athletic performance. A podiatrist can determine if this is an option for you and teach you how to do it properly.
- Padding. You’ll see bunion pads in the footcare department of your local drugstore. These can be helpful to prevent blisters if your bunion is rubbing against your shoe.
- Special shoes. Generally speaking, if a shoe aggravates your bunion, don’t wear it. Look for shoes with a wide toe box or wear a bigger size shoe to provide more room. If you want to wear a certain shoe for a special occasion, a podiatrist might be able to help with pain management.
- Orthotics. A custom-made shoe insert can keep your entire foot cushioned and properly aligned, easing some of the pressure on a misaligned MTJ.
After an exam and assessment with an experienced podiatrist, you can learn whether surgery is an option for you. Bunion correction surgery consists of shaving off the protruding bone, correcting the bony structure of the foot, and fixing the soft tissue problems that have resulted from the misalignment. The goal is a reduction of pain, as well as cosmetic outcomes and greater footwear options. At Omaha Foot & Ankle Specialists, we only recommend surgery when more conservative options are ineffective.
Call Omaha Foot & Ankle Specialists for Help
Since 1991, our premier podiatry practice has helped patients find a solution to pain and discomfort caused by bunions. Our highly skilled podiatrists, Dr. Michael Cullen and Dr. Nathan Penney, provide compassionate and comprehensive care for all manner of foot and heel pain issues, from corns and calluses to bunions and more. Most importantly, we provide the information, education, and support you need to feel confident in your care. Contact our office or call 402-333-8856 as soon as you notice a bump at the base of your big toe. The sooner we get started caring for your feet, the longer you can avoid the necessity for extreme treatments.