In medical terms, a bunion, or hallux valgus, is a bony bump that forms around the joint at the base of your big toe. This joint is one of the most important parts of your foot, bearing most of your body weight. The bony bump is caused by the head of the first metatarsal bone (the long bone) behind the big toe angling out from the foot. This causes the joint to swell, pushing the big toe in towards the adjacent toes. The result is pain on the side of your foot, arch pain, and discomfort throughout the adjacent toes as well.
It is thought that the primary cause of bunions is a mechanical instability in the big toe joint. There are a number of different reasons as to why this may happen. Bunions tend to run in families so a person with a family history of bunions has an increased risk of developing them. Factors that are known to increase the risk of bunions include wearing improperly fitting shoes (particularly narrow and/or high-heeled shoes). Certain arthritic conditions and ligament disorders. Age (the incidence of bunions increases with age). Being flatfooted with feet that roll inwards (over pronation). Past injury (trauma) to the foot. Nerve conditions affecting the foot. Bunions most commonly affect women (approximately 90% of cases) and are less common in people who do not regularly wear shoes.
SymptomsMovement of the big toe towards the smaller toes. Bulging bump on the outside of the base of the big toe. Restricted movement of the big toe. Swelling, inflammation, redness or soreness around your big toe joint. Persistent or sporadic dull, sharp or aching pain in or around the big toe. Corns, blisters and calluses which can develop when the first and second toes overlap. Over time, more severe symptoms can occur such as arthritis of the big toe, stress fractures and problems walking.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose a bunion by asking about your symptoms and examining your feet. You may also have blood tests to rule out any other medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout, although this is rare. Your doctor may refer you to a podiatrist or chiropodist (healthcare professionals who specialise in conditions that affect the feet).
Non Surgical Treatment
Making sure that shoes don’t press against the bunion worsening the pain is the first line of treatment. Protecting the bunion with felt or foam pads or devices to separate the first and second toes at night may be recommended as may cutting a hole in a pair of old, comfortable shoes to take the pressure off the bony protrusion. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be recommended to help relieve toe pain. In rare cases, physicians may administer injections of corticosteroids to treat the inflamed bursa (fluid-filled sac located in a joint) sometimes seen with bunions. Custom orthotic devices are another option that may be beneficial in some cases.
The decision on bunion operative treatment is usually made on the basis of the level of pain and inconvenience caused by the bunion or second toe. There is no correct answer to the question, bunion pain and inconvenience are both highly subjective. An inability to get into a formal shoe may be a major problem for a business woman or man but no problem at all for someone wearing trainers every day. However in general if a bunion is free of pain then the recommendation would not be for surgery. That said, this is not an absolute. Once a patient has read this section and appreciated what surgery and the recovery entails the patient will be in a better position to discuss the possibility of bunion surgery for their symptoms.