A bunion is the enlargement of the joint at the base of the big toe. It occurs as a result of the misalignment of the bones of the big toe. This leads to stretching of the ligaments and tendons around the big toe joint and causes soft tissue over the joint to become inflamed and painful. There may be additional bone formation (exostosis) in the joint and the skin around the joint may become red and tender. Over time the cartilage in the joint can break down, leading to arthritis.
Bunions are a common problem experienced mostly by women. The deformity can develop from an abnormality in foot function, or arthritis, but is more commonly caused by wearing improper fitting footwear. Tight, narrow dress shoes with a constrictive toe box (toe area) can cause the foot to begin to take the shape of the shoe, leading to the formation of a bunion. Women who have bunions normally wear dress shoes that are too small for their feet. Their toes are squeezed together in their shoes causing the first metatarsal bone to protrude on the side of the foot. It is important for men and women to realize that wearing dress shoes and boots, which are tapered in the toe area, can cause the bunion to worsen to the point where surgery is necessary.
It is unusual to have much bunion or hallux valgus pain when out of shoe wear or at rest. There are exceptions to this and in particular if symptoms have been ignored during the day and the bunion has become very painful during the day then some symptoms may be present at night. The pain from the region of the great toe at rest or at night is however more often a symptom of an arthritic big toe (hallux rigidus) rather than a straightforward bunion. To confuse matters these two conditions can sometimes coexist. Bunion or hallux valgus pain is most often present when walking in enclosed shoes. There may be little bunion pain in sandals or barefoot. It is unusual to have much bunion pain when not putting weight on the foot or at night. If there is bunion pain at rest or at night then there may also be arthritic change within the toe.
A doctor can very often diagnose a bunion by looking at it. A foot x-ray can show an abnormal angle between the big toe and the foot. In some cases, arthritis may also be seen.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment options vary with the type and severity of each bunion, although identifying the deformity early in its development is important in avoiding surgery. The primary goal of most early treatment options is to relieve pressure on the bunion and halt the progression of the joint deformity. A podiatrist may recommend these treatments. Padding and Taping, Often the first step in a treatment plan, padding the bunion minimizes pain and allows the patient to continue a normal, active life. Taping helps keep the foot in a normal position, thus reducing stress and pain. Medication, Anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone injections are often prescribed to ease the acute pain and inflammation caused by joint deformities. Physical Therapy, Often used to provide relief of the inflammation and bunion pain. Ultrasound therapy is a popular technique for treating bunions and their associated soft tissue involvement. Orthotics, Shoe inserts may be useful in controlling foot function and may reduce symptoms and prevent worsening of the deformity.
Surgery is the only way to correct a bunion. A bunion will usually get worse over time, so if it's left untreated it's likely to get bigger and become more painful. If your bunion is causing a significant amount of pain and affecting your quality of life, your GP may refer you to be assessed for bunion surgery. The aim of surgery is to relieve pain and improve the alignment of your big toe. Surgery isn't usually carried out for cosmetic reasons alone. Even after surgery, there may still be limits to the styles of shoe you can wear. Bunion surgery is often carried out as a day procedure, which means you won't have to stay in hospital overnight. The procedure will either be carried out under a local anaesthetic or a general anaesthetic.
Bunions often become painful if they are allowed to progress. But not all bunions progress. Many bunion problems can be managed without surgery. In general, bunions that are not painful do not need surgical correction. For this reason, orthopaedic surgeons do not recommend "preventive" surgery for bunions that do not hurt; with proper preventive care, they may never become a problem.