Have you noticed a large bump on the side of your big toe? Perhaps it started out as small, but it's gotten larger over time. You may also be having trouble wearing your favorite shoes without pain. You most likely have a bunion. You may be wondering why you have bunions. Is this something you inherited or is there something you did to cause it? And what about treatment?

What Causes Bunions?

While bunions aren’t hereditary, you can inherit a foot type that puts you at risk for developing them. These foot types include flat feet, high arches, and the tendency to over pronate or roll your foot inward when you walk.

Also, foot injuries and neuromuscular problems can also contribute to their development. Finally, wearing shoes that are too tight, too narrow in the toe box or high heels can all contribute to the progression of bunions.

If you have bunions, you're not alone. Bunions occur in approximately 33% of the population in western countries.

What Are Bunions?

What exactly are bunions and how do they develop? A bunion is a bony bump that forms at the joint of your big toe. After many years of pressure on that joint, the toe becomes hypermobile, allowing it to shift towards the little toe. Along with bunion formation the movement of the big toe can cause other toes to overlap and develop into hammertoes. Many people with advanced bunions will have these other conditions as well.

What Causes Bunion Pain?

The bunion becomes painful due to the friction and pressure exerted when it rubs against your shoes, as well as pain inside the joint, the skin over the toe becomes red and tender. Because this joint flexes with every step, the bigger the bunion gets, the more it hurts to walk.

Other painful conditions that can develop because of bunions include:

  • Corns and calluses
  • Skin at the side of the foot can become thicker
  • Stiffness in the big toe can set in due to bursitis or arthritis.

All these conditions can cause chronic pain, making it difficult to walk. If you lived where the weather is always nice bunions would not be as much of an issue since you could accommodate them with sandals. In Seattle, we need to wear closed shoes almost all year long. Unfortunately, most closed toed shoes are not designed to accommodate bunions.

Tailor’s Bunion

Another type of bunion develops next to the little or pinky toe. It's called a Tailor's bunion or bunionette. Long ago, when tailors sat cross-legged all day, the outside edge of their feet rubbed against the ground leading to the bump that is now its namesake. Today we can develop this condition if we inherit flat feet or other structural abnormalities and wear shoes that place additional pressure on that toe. The bone on the side of the little toe moves outward while the toe moves inward towards the other toes, causing the bump to be more prominent. Sometimes the bump is actually a bone spur.

How to Treat Bunions

To treat bunions, it's important to relieve the pressure and pain to stop them from getting more pronounced. Here are some methods for reducing pressure and pain caused by bunions.

  • Protective padding. This is often made from felt material. It can help eliminate friction against your shoes and alleviate inflammation and skin problems.
  • Removal of corns and calluses.  
  • Changing footwear. Choose footwear designed to accommodate the bunion and not contribute toward its growth. Typically, these are shoes with a roomier toe box or shoes that have a stretchy upper. Some sandals will also work to make room for a bunion.
  • Orthotic devices. Custom orthotics can help stabilize the big toe joint and correctly align the foot while walking or standing. It can help in reducing pain and preventing bunions from getting worse.
  • Exercises to maintain the joint mobility and prevent stiffness or arthritis.

Am I A Candidate for Bunion Surgery?

You might wonder if you're a candidate for bunion surgery. Here at the foot and Ankle center of Lake City, we believe in using conservative measures well before we ever consider surgery, as all surgeries come with risks.

Bunion surgery or a bunionectomy may be the best option for patients who feel they can't ever have the quality of life they seek without it. Learn more about bunion surgery below.

Preventing Bunions

While you can't prevent bunions, you can prevent them from getting worse. Here are some tips.

  • Choose a lower heel height. Lowering your heel height will make a big difference in stopping the progression of bunions. Higher shoes in the heel place more pressure on the ball of the foot and the big toe joint that forms the bunion. Lowering the heels relieves that pressure. Choose shoes that are one inch or lower in the heel.
  • Choose a wider toe box. A wider toe box prevents toes from cramping together and relieves pressure on the ball of the foot.
  • Choose shoes with a closed back. Avoid open back clogs or slides, pumps. When your foot is not a securely fitting shoe, more pressure is applied to the front of the foot. Keep open back shoes for home use not for walking.
  •  Wear your orthotics. It's important to wear your orthotics all the time because in addition to aligning your feet, they can prevent your bunions from getting worse.

In conclusion, while living with bunions can be painful, there are treatment options to help keep you active if you no longer have the quality of life you want. You can learn more about surgical options by scheduling an appointment with our clinic. 

Dr. Rion Berg
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A podiatrist in North Seattle treating families for over 40 years.