Bunions are a progressive foot deformity associated with growing older, but they can also form in younger people. Bunions can be annoying, painful, and ugly.
Bunions become progressively worse without treatment and severe cases can cause debilitating pain. Bunions are in part heredity, but there are several steps you can take to decrease your changes of developing one as you age. Keep reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms of bunions, how you can prevent them, and when to call a doctor.
Causes & symptoms
Take a look at your feet. If your big toe leans inwards towards your other toes, you have a higher chance of developing bunions as you age.
A bunion (scientific term “hallux valgus”) is a boney, angular lump that forms at the joint connecting your big toe to your foot. The lump will form right at the base of the big toe, on the side of the foot.
The enlarged area represents the misalignment of the metatarsal phalangeal joint (big toe joint) and can sometimes lead to the formation of additional bone.
The lump can feel tender, warm to the touch, or painful. It may appear red and shiny. As the bunion forms, your big toe will start to curve inwards towards your other toes.
What does bunion pain feel like?
Some bunions cause no pain. For others, the feeling ranges from a nagging soreness to a burning pain that makes it difficult to walk. Bunions typically hurt when you walk because all your body weight rests on the lump. If your shoe rubs against the area, you might also notice calluses.
Bunions can be caused by:
- Weak foot structure (hereditary)
- Abnormal formation of foot bones (congenital birth defect)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Improper gait (such as overpronation)
- Improper shoes
- Repetitive stress
- Discrepancies in limb length (i.e. if one leg is longer than the other)
Women are more likely to get bunions than men because the condition can be caused by wearing high heels and other tight shoes that force your feet into unnatural positions.
How to prevent bunion from getting worse
Bunions take years to form, so you have plenty of time to prevent them. The easiest ways to prevent bunions are to wear the proper footwear and to maintain a normal weight.
When a diagnosis is made early, bunion growth can be slowed and in some cases stopped by wearing the correct footwear. This may include custom orthotics.
How to shrink bunions
Other than surgery, it is impossible to eradicate a bunion once it has formed. Some treatments may reduce the bunion’s apparent size by alleviating swelling, but otherwise it is impossible to shrink a bunion once it has started to grow.
Bunions will never get better on their own, so it’s important not to ignore them.
Bunion treatment without surgery
Other than custom orthotics and proper footwear, we recommend protecting the affected are with moleskin or a gel-filled pad. You can purchase these at a drug store.
Some people like to wear a bunion splint or brace at night to ease discomfort by straightening the toe. This technique may be helpful but it won’t permanently realign your toes.
Ice packs, heating pads, warm baths, and massage can also help.
Bunion pain relief home remedies
If you’re trying to avoid medication, there are a variety of foot exercises you can do at home that have been shown to help ease the pain caused by bunions. Keep in mind these exercises will not shrink the bunion or get rid of it – but they will decrease pain, increase foot flexibility, and slow down the bunion’s growth.
1. Toe stretches can keep your feet limber and decrease pain. Start by pointing your toes straight in front of you. Hold that position for 5 seconds. Curl your toes under and hold that position for 5 seconds. Continue to alternate between these two positions for a total of 10 sets.
2. Stretching out your big toe can also help. Use your fingers to pull your toe into the correct position (away from other toes so that it is pointing straight). Hold that position for 10 seconds and repeat 3-4 times.
3. Resistance exercises can increase flexibility and improve foot strength. Wrap a towel around your big toe. Hold the ends of the towel and pull it back towards you while at the same time pushing forwards with your big toe.
4. Massage is a great way to decrease pain in nearly any part of the body. To massage the bottom of your foot, simply place a golf ball or tennis ball on the ground under your foot. Roll your foot on the ball for 2 minutes to help relieve pain, cramping, and strain. You can do this while sitting or standing.
5. Walking in sand has been shown to help strengthen the toes. If you live near the beach, take long walks on the sand. This is great for people who have developed bunions associated with arthritis.
6. Picking up marbles with your toes can help increase flexibility. Place 20 marbles on the floor and use your toes to pick them up and put them into a bowl. Repeat once per day.
When to call a doctor
If you have persistent pain when walking in flat shoes that are not tight around the toes, you should call a podiatrist. This may be a sign that you’ve developed a bone spur or bursitis.
Your doctor will likely X-ray the affected area. He may also conduct a blood test if he suspects that gout or an infection is causing your pain. Depending on the cause of the bunions, your podiatrist may recommend painkillers and anti-inflammatories.
Treatment can include icing, rest, shoe inserts (orthotics), medications, and steroid injections. Bunion patients should choose wide shoes or sandals with a supportive sole.
The surgical removal of a bunion is called bunionectomy, and it is only necessary in extreme cases. You should not ask your doctor for surgery for aesthetic purposes, because the risks can sometimes outweigh the benefits.
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