The common bunion is a localized area of enlargement of the inner portion of the joint at the base of the big toe. The enlargement actually represents additional bone formation, often in combination with a misalignment of the big toe. The misalignment causes the big toe to move outward (medically termed hallux valgus deformity). The normal position of the big toe (straight forward) becomes outward directed toward the smaller toes. The enlarged joint at the base of the big toe (the first metatarsophalangeal joint, or MTP joint) can become inflamed with redness, tenderness, and pain. A small fluid-filled sac (bursa) adjacent to the joint can also become inflamed (bursitis), leading to additional swelling, redness, and pain. A less common bunion is located at the joint at the base of the smallest (fifth) toe. This bunion is sometimes referred to as a tailor's bunion.
The commonest cause of bunions is prolonged wearing of poorly designed shoes such as the narrow high heels that women wear. This is one of the reasons why bunions are much more common in women than in men. There is also a hereditary component to bunions in that many times we will see a grandmother, mother and daughter all with various stages of bunions. 38% of women in the United States wear shoes that are too small and 55% of women have some degree of bunion formation. Bunions are 9 times more common in women than they are in men.
In addition to the typical bump, signs of bunions can include red, calloused skin along the foot at the base of the big toe. With bunions, you may also develop calluses on the big toe, sores between the toes, ingrown toenail, and restricted motion of the toe. Some bunions are small and painless and some are large and extremely painful. Pressure from shoes worsens the problem.
When an x-ray of a bunion is taken, there is usually angulation between the first metatarsal bone and the bones of the big toe. There may also be angulation between the first and second metatarsal bones. These angular irregularities are the essence of most bunions. In general, surgery for bunions aims to correct such angular deformities.
Non Surgical Treatment
Before treatment of a painful bunion can begin, medical evaluation is needed. There are a number of other causes of pain in the big toe such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, infection and gout. Circulatory problems not only cause pain, but may also cause serious complications if surgery is attempted. Diabetes and cigarette smoking may diminish healing potential and increase the risk of infection.
If bunions are causing severe foot pain or inflammation and swelling that limits daily activities and doesn't improve with rest, medication and comfortable shoes, surgery may be required. More than 100 surgical options are available for painful bunions. Some realign the foot's anatomy by cutting notches from the metatarsal bone or the bone of the big toe. The bones can then grow back without the slant that promotes bunion growth. The operation is usually done on an outpatient basis, but afterward, you probably will have to stay off your feet for a few weeks. Recovery takes about six weeks. Surgery is not recommended for a bunion that doesn't cause pain.