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A bunion (a.k.a Hallux Valgus) is a common foot condition associated with a prominent bump on the inside of the forefoot (see Figure 1). The word bunion? comes from the Greek root for the word turnip. Bunions can lead to discomfort over the prominence, especially if patients wear tight fitting shoes. It is common for bunions to run in family? and gradually increase over time. The vast majority of bunions can be managed successfully with basic non-operative treatment. Surgery is reserved for patients who have persistent symptoms in spite of appropriate non-operative treatment.
The exact cause of bunions is unknown, but they tend to run in families. Wearing badly fitting shoes is thought to make bunions worse. It’s also thought that bunions are more likely to occur in people with unusually flexible joints, which is why bunions sometimes occur in children. In some cases, certain health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout, may also be responsible.
SymptomsBunions may cause no pain at first. But as the big toe begins to turn in towards the other toes, people with bunions usually experience redness, pain, swelling, and tenderness in the area around the joint. Pressure inside the joint or from footwear pressing against the bunion may also cause discomfort. As the affected toe curves closer to the other toes on the foot, these toes can become painful as well. Complications of bunions include corns, calluses, hammer toe, and ingrown toenails. Other complications include irritation of the nerves surrounding the bunion area. Excess rubbing of the bunion against the footwear may lead to changes in the skin, resulting in corns or calluses. Hammer toe is a deformity of the toe immediately next to the big toe. A hammer toe is slightly raised and points upwards from the base and downwards at the end of the toe. Ingrown toenails can result from increased pressure from the big toe on the other toes. There may also be a decrease in the amount a person can move the joint affected by the bunion. Irritation of the nerves will feel like burning or decreased sensation.
People with bunions may be concerned about the changing appearance of their feet, but it is usually the pain caused by the condition that leads them to consult their doctor. The doctor will evaluate any symptoms experienced and examine the affected foot for joint enlargement, tissue swelling and/or tenderness. They will also assess any risk factors for the condition and will ask about family history. An x-ray of the foot is usually recommended so that the alignment of big toe joint can be assessed. This would also allow any other conditions that may be affecting the joint, such as arthritis, to be seen.
Non Surgical Treatment
Making sure that shoes don’t press against the bunion worsening the pain is the first line of treatment. Protecting the bunion with felt or foam pads or devices to separate the first and second toes at night may be recommended as may cutting a hole in a pair of old, comfortable shoes to take the pressure off the bony protrusion. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be recommended to help relieve toe pain. In rare cases, physicians may administer injections of corticosteroids to treat the inflamed bursa (fluid-filled sac located in a joint) sometimes seen with bunions. Custom orthotic devices are another option that may be beneficial in some cases.
Surgery should only be considered for bunions that are painful, not for correction of the cosmetic appearance! The primary indication for operative intervention should be pain that is not relieved by appropriate non-operative management. Although symptom-free bunions can slowly increase in size over time surgical treatment is not recommended unless significant pain symptoms develop. The prolonged recovery time associated with most bunion operations, combined with the potential for complications means that patients should be extremely cautious of undergoing bunion surgery for purely cosmetic reasons.