A bunion is a bony enlargement of the joint and surrounding soft tissues at the base of the big toe. The enlargement makes the big toe joint stick out further on the side, and forces the big toe to curve in closer to the other toes. For some people, bunions cause little or no pain. In Canada, women are 10 times more likely than men to have bunions. Managing the condition so that it doesn't get worse is a matter of wearing appropriate footwear, cushioning and supporting the area, and taking pain relievers as required. People with more severe bunions may need more specific treatment, such as surgery.
Women traditionally have a higher rate of bunions, which is to be expected, since it is they who have traditionally worn shoes with high heels, a narrow toe box, or whatever fashion dictates from year to year. However, men can suffer from bunions as well, as can anyone for whom the right (or wrong) conditions exist, poor foot mechanics, improper footwear, occupational hazards, health and genetic predisposition. Finally, bunions have long been a condition associated with the elderly, and although they often appear in conjunction with inflammatory joint diseases such as arthritis (which is often associated with age), they can strike at any point in life, including adolescence.
Signs and symptoms of a bunion include the base of the big toe is swollen and sticks out. The big toe is often bent towards the other toes, and sometimes the second toe is pushed to overlap the third toe. Skin around the big toe joint is red and sore. Thickened skin at the base of the big toe. Pain in the big toe or foot. Wearing shoes is painful. Pain or difficulty when walking.
Clinical findings are usually specific. Acute circumferential intense pain, warmth, swelling, and redness suggest gouty arthritis (see Gout) or infectious arthritis (see Acute Infectious Arthritis), sometimes mandating examination of synovial fluid. If multiple joints are affected, gout or another systemic rheumatic disease should be considered. If clinical diagnosis of osteoarthritic synovitis is equivocal, x-rays are taken. Suggestive findings include joint space narrowing and bony spurs extending from the metatarsal head or sometimes from the base of the proximal phalanx. Periarticular erosions (Martel sign) seen on imaging studies suggest gout.
Non Surgical Treatment
Padding with a number of different materials (eg felt) to reduce pressure on the painful prominence of the bunion. Physical therapy can be used to help with the symptoms and improve the range of motion (this is particularly helpful if the pain is coming from inside the joint, rather than from shoe pressure). Manipulation of the joint can be used to help with this (manipulation will never correct the alignment of the joint). Any corns and calluses that are causing symptoms should be treated. The correct fitting of footwear is essential for anyone who is serious about doing something about their bunions and hallux valgus. It may be possible to have your shoes stretched over the area of the bunion to also relieve pressure. Foot orthotics may be useful in helping with the instability about the joint. They may be more helpful if there are other symptoms in the foot as well, as their use in "treating" bunions is controversial. They may play a role in slowing progression and in the prevention of bunions developing again after surgical correction. Exercises can be important in maintaining the mobility of the joint in those with bunions, this is especially important for the arthritic type pains that may be originating from inside the joint and for the prevention of these painful symptoms in the future.
Surgery for bunions usually isn't done unless you have already tried other treatment and it did not relieve your pain. Other treatment includes wearing shoes with lots of room for your toes and using pads and supports in your shoe for protection and comfort. Surgery may be right for you if your toe is too painful, if your bunion is very big, or if you can't easily do your daily activities. It's not clear how well bunion surgery works or which kind of surgery is best. How well the surgery works depends on how bad your bunion is, the type of surgery you have, and your surgeon's experience. Your expectations will play a big role in how you feel about the results of surgery. If you want surgery mainly to improve the way your foot looks, you may be disappointed.