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Foot Bunion Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Reviewed by
Dr. James Milidantri

Bunions (sometimes referred to as Hallux abducto valgus) are enlargements of the inner portion of the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint at the base of your big toe. More commonly, they are described as a bump on the side of the big toe.

The foot bunion is the result of changes that occur in the framework of the bones at the front of your foot. Instead of pointing straight ahead, your big toe begins to lean into your second toe, throwing the bones out of alignment.

Small picture of foot with bunion
Large picture of foot bunion

Bunions are progressive, meaning you will not just wake up one day and find a visible bump (unless it was caused by a bug bite or something of that nature).

Bunions are generally attributed to genetics and improper footwear. It may take years for a bunion to fully develop and begin to show symptoms.

Some people may never experience symptoms at all. Bunions may begin to form during one’s teenage years, but they usually occur in people aged 20–30.

Women are three times more likely than men to have bunions.

What Are The Symptoms of a Foot Bunion?

If a foot bunion is developing, you may experience some of these symptoms:

  • Bulge or bump on the outside of the base of your big toe
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Soreness
  • Thickening of the skin in that location
  • Corns or calluses
  • Limited movement of your big toe
  • Persistent or periodic pain

The pain you experience may be mild or severe. It may become increasingly difficult to walk in your normal shoes.

The pressure on your other toes can cause your toenails to grow inward or your smaller toes to become bent.

Why Did I Develop Bunions?

Bunions can be caused by:

  • Improper footwear
  • Genetics
  • Foot injuries
  • Congenital deformities
  • Medical conditions such as arthritis
  • Stress on feet

Bunions are mainly caused by genetics. The bunion itself is not inherited, but the person’s hereditary foot type and gait pattern makes them more prone to developing bunions.

You can also begin to develop bunionsby wearing shoes that are too tight or too small. When you wear shoes of this nature, your toes are squeezed together.

Bunions are not caused by crowding of the toes, but wearing tight shoes can worsen the condition and cause symptoms to appear sooner. Some people are born with birth defects that put them at higher risk for developing bunions.

How Are Bunions Diagnosed?

A simple visual exam is all it will take for your doctor to determine whether you have a bunion. He or she may also ask you to move your big toe in order to ascertain your range of motion. Your doctor may also look for any inflammation, redness, or pain.

X-rays can help your doctor determine the severity and cause of the bunion. Your doctor may also ask you questions about your footwear, the symptoms you are experiencing, and if other family members also suffer from the condition.

All these factors will help him or her diagnose you properly.

Bunion Treatment Options For You

The treatment method your doctor chooses for you will be based on the severity of the bunion. Treatment can be simple and non-surgical or it can be complex, surgical, and costly.

A bunion is permanent unless surgery is performed to remove it, but self-care can help to improve your symptoms. If you suspect that a bunion is developing, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Here are the most common conservative treatment options:

  • Changing your shoes
  • Adding custom orthotics to your shoes
  • Medication such as Tylenol for pain relief
  • Padding and taping to put your foot in its normal position
  • Applying ice or cold compresses to reduce swelling and pain
  • Keeping pressure off your affected toe, especially if there is swelling, redness, and pain
  • Before bed, separate the affected toe from the others with a foam-rubber pad and leave it there while you sleep

If the conservative options fail, your doctor will determine the best surgical procedure based on the severity of your condition. The most common surgical procedure is a bunionectomy, which includes:

  • Removing swollen tissue from around your big toe joint
  • Removing part of the bone to straighten your big toe
  • Realigning the metatarsal bone to reduce angular deformity
  • Joining the bones in a corrected position to permanently correct the deformity.

Most people can get up and walk around the day after bunion surgery, but full recovery can occasionally take up to eight weeks or more.

Doctors stress the importance of wearing proper shoes, especially after treatment, to prevent recurrence. If you are at higher risk or prone to bunions, you may not be able to avoid recurrence.

Bunion Risks and Complications To Be Aware Of

There are several factors that can increase your risk of developing a bunion, including:

  • Having flat feet, or pes planus
  • Arthritis
  • Family history of foot problems
  • Wearing shoes that have high heels or small toe boxes

If you have diabetes, you may also be susceptible to foot problems, including bunions. Infections are a common complication of bunions.

Inflammation and arthritis may affect other joints and cause difficulty walking and wearing shoes. Bunions have a very slight chance of coming back after surgery.

How Can I Prevent Bunions From Developing?

Here are some tips to help you prevent bunions:

  • Wear shoes that fit well.
  • Use custom orthotic devices
  • Avoid shoes with small toe boxes and high heels
  • Exercise daily to keep the muscles of your feet and legs strong and healthy
  • Follow your doctor’s treatment and recovery instructions thoroughly

Unfortunately, if you suffer from bunions due to genetics, there may be nothing you can do to prevent them from occurring. Talk with your doctor about additional prevention steps you can take, especially if you are prone to them.

Talking to Your Doctor

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor about bunions:

  • How likely is it that I will pass this gene on to my children?
  • What additional prevention steps can I take to avoid bunions?
  • How severe is my situation?
  • What treatment options do I have?
  • Will treating the bunion require me to limit my normal activities?
  • What symptoms should I watch for that may indicate treatment is not working?
  •  How long should I wait to contact you again?
  • What diagnostic testing should I expect during my follow-up visit?

Medical References:

  1. H. Winter Griffith, MD "Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery" (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 196
  2. American Medical Association "Family Medical Guide" 4th Edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2004) 989; 1002-1003
  3. M. Beers "Merck Manual of Medical Information" 2nd home edition (Pocket Books, 2003) 410-411

This page was last updated on October 2nd, 2015

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There are five metatarsals in all. The metatarsals are the long bones located in our feet, between the tarsal (ankle) bones and the phalanges (toes).

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