A bunion is an enlargement of the joint at the base of the big toe (the metatarsophalangeal or MTP joint) that forms when the bone or tissue moves out of place. The toe bends inward at an awkward angle, which usually creates a large bone lump. If not treated, bunions can become very painful since this area supports a lot of body weight. The MTP joint can also become sore and stiff. Bunions can occur on the outside of the little toe as well.
Bunions develop when the pressures of bearing and shifting your weight fall unevenly on the joints and tendons in your feet. This imbalance in pressure makes your big toe joint unstable, eventually molding the parts of the joint into a hard knob that juts out beyond the normal shape of your foot. Experts disagree on whether tight, high-heeled or too-narrow shoes cause bunions or whether footwear simply contributes to bunion development. Other causes include inherited foot type, foot injuries, deformities present at birth (congenital). Bunions may be associated with certain types of arthritis, particularly inflammatory types, such as rheumatoid arthritis. An occupation that puts extra stress on your feet or one that requires you to wear pointed shoes also can be a cause.
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.
Your doctor is very likely to be able to diagnose your bunion simply by examining your foot. Even before that, he or she will probably ask about your family and personal medical history and evaluate the types of shoes you wear. You'll be asked about your symptoms, when they started and when they occur. You may also be asked to flex your toe so that your doctor can get an idea of your range of motion. He or she may order x-rays in order to determine the extent of your deformity.
Non Surgical Treatment
Several things can be done to help relive the pain of bunions. These won't make the bunion go away, but they can make the foot more comfortable. Wearing different shoes. Shoes with a wide toe box rather than a pointed one will help. Shoes with lower heels will also help. (High heels throw more of the body's weight on the front part of the foot where the toe joints are.) Padding. Pads placed over the bunion may help reduce the pain. These are available from a drug store or may be available from a foot and ankle surgeon. Avoiding activities that make the pain worse. This includes standing for a long time or other activities that make the bunion sore. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These include aspirin or ibuprofen. They relieve pain and swelling. Applying an ice pack to reduce swelling and pain. Corticosteroid injections. These are not often used in bunion treatment. Injecting corticosteroids sometimes helps if the bursa is inflamed. (Bursa is a fluid-filled sac within a joint to cushion the bones). Orthotic devices. These are devices placed inside a shoe that shift the positioning of the foot. Orthotics help compensate for structural issues that cause foot problems.
If nonsurgical treatment fails, you may want to consider surgery. Many studies have found that 85 to 90 percent of patients who undergo bunion surgery are satisfied with the results. Reasons that you may benefit from bunion surgery commonly include severe foot pain that limits your everyday activities, including walking and wearing reasonable shoes. You may find it hard to walk more than a few blocks (even in athletic shoes) without significant pain. Chronic big toe inflammation and swelling that doesn't improve with rest or medications. Toe deformity-a drifting in of your big toe toward the small toes. Toe stiffness-inability to bend and straighten your toe. Failure to obtain pain relief from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Their effectiveness in controlling toe pain varies greatly from person to person. Failure to substantially improve with other treatments such as a change in shoes and anti-inflammatory medication. As you explore bunion surgery, be aware that so-called "simple" or "minimal" surgical procedures are often inadequate "quick fixes" that can do more harm than good. And beware of unrealistic claims that surgery can give you a "perfect" foot. The goal of surgery is to relieve as much pain, and correct as much deformity as is realistically possible. It is not meant to be cosmetic.