That bump at the base of your big toe is probably a bunion. Bunions are a cause of joint pain and a common problem among women who wear high heels a lot; people who spend a lot of time on their feet (especially if wearing tight shoes); and those who exercise with poor form. At first you might not think your bunion is any big deal, but when left untreated, bunions can cause serious scar tissue to form in the foot, toe abnormalities and a whole lot of pain.
What Is a Bunion?
The word “bunion” comes from the Greek word for turnip. It’s now the common name for that bony bump that can grow on the outside of the foot because bunions often look red and swollen — just like a turnip.
A bunion (also referred to as hallux valgus) causes the joint of the base of the big toes to stick out and become enlarged. Normally, things like wearing tight-fitting shoes and putting too much pressure on the toes slowly cause abnormalities in the big toe’s joint position. Repetitive motion can also distort or enlarge the joint that connects the big toe to the rest of the foot, causing a bony bump to appear, along with pain and swelling.
For most people, bony bunion growths appear slowly and gradually cause more and more pain. At first you might notice that your big toe is turning inward a bit more than usual, the outer edge is becoming puffy and your foot appears red. Before long, you might have a good deal of pain when standing up, wearing shoes and exercising.
Both men and women can get develop bunions, but women tend to have them more often, likely because they tend to wear more constricting shoes. High heels, for example, can squeeze the toes together, restrict blood flow and cut off the big toe’s normal range of motion. Over time, this winds up pulling the big toe joint out of place. Then scar tissue can form and swelling occurs, which results in abnormal positioning of the feet.
A bunion might start out small but keep growing the more that the toes are constricted — and the bigger the bunion gets, the harder it is to walk and move normally. Experts advise anyone who suspects bunions to see a professional for help right away, since early treatment gives the bunion the best odds of healing. It’s not a good idea to leave a bunion alone to heal on its own, and in fact this can cause complications. Wearing roomier shoes, correcting your form when walking or running, stretching your toes, and applying essential oils for arthritis and joint pain can all help resolve bunions, although every case is different and some might require more intensive treatments.
Natural Bunion Treatment
1. Wear Wider Shoes
Changing your shoes can help take stress off of your big toe and allow the bunion to heal. Most people find relief from bunions once they switch to wearing wider shoes that allow for enough toe “wiggle room,” according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). This helps take pressure off the big toe and allows for better circulation and range of motion that stops the joint abnormality from worsening.
If you aren’t sure what type of shoes would be best for your feet and allow for a bigger “toe box,” visit a specialist at a sneaker or athletic store who can measure your feet. Some people find that shoes with laces or straps are best since these can be custom-adjusted to the width of your feet. (1)
In addition to recommending certain shoes for relieving bunions, a specialist can also tell you what type of arches you have and therefore what types of sneakers would be best to wear when working out to prevent other common injuries, like plantar fasciitis. It’s also possible to modify shoes using a stretcher to stretch out the areas that put pressure on your toes, if needed
The AAOS recommends that people with bunions “avoid shoes that are too short, tight, or sharply pointed, and those with heels higher than a couple of inches.” High heels can increase pressure in the front of the foot and lead to various foot problems in some cases. (2)
2. Use Pads or Shoe Inserts to Correct Your Foot’s Position
Using shoe inserts, a bunion corrector or “bunion pads” can help correct the position of your feet and take weight off your toes. These are sometimes called “orthoses” and work by redistributing pressure away from the affected joint.
Some people need more heel and arch support in order to improve their feet’s range of motion and correctly balance their body weight over the entire foot. A combination of buying the right type of shoes for your feet and also adding extra support/cushion might be enough to solve the problem. You can usually find bunion pads or something similar in most drug stores/pharmacies and don’t necessarily need to visit a doctor for help. Just make sure that you test the pads for a short time period first to ensure they’re reducing pressure, rather than constricting toes even more and making the bunion bump even worse.
3. Stretch the Feet
If your toes feel stiff, stretching and moving the toe joints can help relax the foot muscle and lessen joint pain. Try practicing simple bunion stretching exercises at home, such as flexing and unflexing the toes, rolling them over a tennis ball, and massaging them in your hands. To stretch your toes, point your toes straight ahead for five seconds and then curl them under for five seconds, repeating 10 times or more daily. You can also wrap a towel under your affected toe and use it to roll your toe around or stretch it forward. (3)
4. Fix Your Form When Exercising
The American College of Foot & Ankle Surgeons recommends that people prone to developing bunions avoid activities that cause increased pain, burning and worsened swelling, including standing for long periods of time or running. (4) If you recently started a new exercise program that’s causing your feet pain or you’re experiencing signs of another running injury, poor form might be to blame. Rolling your ankles, not running with proper form and landing too hard on your toes can trigger inflammation near the big toe.
This is another scenario when proper shoes are a must. You might also want to meet with a physical therapist if you notice pain in your heels, arches or ankles since they can show you proper foot alignment and explain how to run lightly on your feet.
5. Manage Pain Naturally
When pain becomes bad, you can apply ice several times a day for 20 minutes at a time. Elevate your affected foot to help reduce swelling, and try massaging the foot with an anti-inflammatory essential oil. You can help keep down swelling by applying essential oils, such as frankincense and peppermint oil.
Bunion Facts and Statistics
- Some studies have found that almost half of the adult population has some form of a bunion. (5) Other studies show that bunion deformities in the feet have an estimated prevalence of 23 percent to 35 percent. (6) For most adults, bunions are minor and don’t cause noticeable pain.
- Bunions affect more women than men. Women’s high-heeled shoes with a heel higher than 2.25 inches (5.7 centimeters) are most likely to cause bunions. (7)
- Bunions are more common in adults over the age of 65 than any other age group.
- Bunions can also affect young people. These are called adolescent bunions and are most common in girls between the ages of 10 and 15. Adolescent bunions are often genetic and run in families.
- Around 2 percent of children under 10 years old develop bunions.
- Bunions are technically diagnosed when the big toe turns in at an angle greater than 15 degrees.
- Bunions affect people most who wear tight shoes or who spend lots of time on their feet, including dancers and athletes.
- Surgery for bunions is only very rarely needed, and some studies have found that after surgery up to 35 percent of patients report being unsatisfied with the outcome of the operation.
Bunion Symptoms and Signs
According to the AAOS, common symptoms and signs of a bunion include: (8)
- A swollen, enlarged base of the big toe. The outer edge of the big toe might appear red, puffy and warm. The larger area around the big toe might also become swollen.
- You might notice a growth or hard enlargement that appears at the side of the big toe where it meets the foot. Some people describe the growth of a hard, “bony” bump that protrudes outward and becomes irritated by wearing shoes.
- The big toe faces inward more than usual toward the smaller toes. Sometimes an enlargement first appears along with the toe pointing inward before pain starts to actually develop. When a bunion becomes severe, the big toe might actually start to turn inward so much that it crosses over the second toe and pushes that toe out of place.
- Pain in the toes, especially near the big toe. Either the entire big toe joint or just the inner part of the joint can ache when you walk or put pressure on your feet.
- Pain when wearing specific shoes that are tight around the toes, but not other shoes.
- The toes develop a limited range of motion and feel restricted.
- Calluses that develop where the toes rub against each other and hardened skin that forms under the toes.
- You might develop a smaller bunion (called a “bunionette”) on the joint of your little toes that appears the same way.
- In some cases, an enlarged metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint that’s left untreated can lead to bursitis or arthritis. Bursitis is caused by inflammation of bursa (fluid-filled sacs that cushion the space between bones near joints). Arthritis can be caused if the smooth cartilage that covers the joint becomes damaged from prolonged pressure and scarring.
What Causes Bunions?
Bunions are usually caused from abnormal positioning of the toes, malformation and inflammation of the big toe joint, or from an abnormality of the bone in the big toe. A common abnormality that’s responsible for bunions is one that causes the MTP joint located at the base of the big toe to bulge outward from the inner side of the foot, making the big toe face inward (this is technically what hallux valgus is). (9) The big toe is made up of two joints, and the larger one (the MTP joint) connects the toes (phalanx bones) to the base of the foot (metatarsal bones). Bunions develop at the MTP joint when it becomes stretched out of place and inflamed.
Wondering what causes this type of foot abnormality that’s responsible for bunions to develop in the first place?
Scenarios that can contribute to bunions include:
- Wearing shoes that are tight and limit the foot’s range of motion, causing a bursa to develop — a bursa is a small fluid-filled sac of joint fluid that feels tender and usually appears swollen
- Excessive pronation (turning inward) of the ankles
- Poor form when running or exercising
- Overusing the feet and repetitive movements
- Injuries to the feet, ankles or toes
- Joint scarring in the feet caused by conditions like arthritis that limit the feet’s range of motion
- Osteoarthritis that causes bone spurs to develop on the toes
Bunions also seem to run in families, so some people are at a higher risk since they inherit feet that are deformed in some minor way and therefore more likely to develop bunions. This is especially common among teenagers and young adults. People who have an autoimmune or inflammatory condition (such as rheumatoid arthritis, polio or lupus) might also develop bunions due to joint tissue damage.
Conventional Bunion Treatment
Doctors usually diagnose someone as having a bunion based on examination of physical symptoms, pain, and talking to the patient about his or her experience, shoes and lifestyle. Sometimes X-rays are needed to confirm a bad case of bunions, but usually an enlargement of the big toe is enough for your doctor to know.
In severe cases, if pain and swelling become very bad, corticosteroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and painkillers might be given to help ease discomfort while the bunion heals. Whenever possible, it’s a better idea to take a low dose of over-the-counter painkiller like ibuprofen to deal with temporary pain, along with helping reduce inflammation of the big toe joint by resting, icing and giving it time.
Sometimes a small steroid injection is given to help ease muscle spasms and swelling, but without making the permanent changes described above a bunion can still come back or appear on the other foot.
One complication that can occur due to bunions is an infection of the big toe joint, so if doctors suspect this might be the case, they may need to take a fluid sample from the foot and test it for bacteria or antibodies. If an infection is confirmed, it’s common for a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic.
Bunion Surgery and Bunions That Won’t Heal
According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Orthopedics and Medicine (ACFAOM), the natural treatments above should be able to help treat most mild to moderate cases of bunions without surgery. Only very rarely is bunion surgery actually needed. This should be considered a last-resort option and is usually only needed when a bunion has been left untreated for a long time, or if someone is unwilling to change shoes (for example, the person thinks wider shoes are unattractive) or wear shoe inserts to change certain things about the way he or she puts pressure on the feet.
- Surgery is sometimes needed to help remove scar tissue that forms around the big toe in order to improve range of motion. If a bunion has been left untreated for a long time or if someone is suffering from a degenerative joint disease surgery will be more likely needed.
- Risks of surgery include adversely affecting the MTJ joint and dorsiflexion of the foot, which can affect range of motion and even athletic/dance abilities. (10) However, sometimes they are the only option if the bunion becomes serious enough.
- Talk to your doctor about receiving a custom orthotic/shoe insert to try first before taking other measures. You might also try wearing a small toe spacer that is placed between your toes to keep your big toe in a straighter position while you sleep.
- The sooner you receive treatment for a bunion, the better your chances are for relief. The ACFAOM states on their website that “The earlier treatment begins, the better the chances are for a full recovery with minimal or no invasion.”
- Keep in mind that bunions usually won’t go away on their own. They are a treatable condition, according to experts, but early action is important, as well as patience and being willing to try new approaches.
Precautions When Treating Bunions
If you start to notice swelling around multiple toes (more than just the big toe) that lasts for a long time, visit a doctor to talk about what other health conditions might be causing your pain. People who have pain and swelling in multiple toes, other parts of the feet or the ankles might have similar conditions like arthritis, osteoarthritis or bursitis. If your swelling, pain, calluses and bunion don’t start to go away after using the treatments above for several months, make sure to get checked by a podiatrist (foot doctor) to rule out other serious concerns.
Key Points about Bunions
- Bunions are bony growths on the outsides of the feet next to the big toes that affect as many as 50 percent of all adults to some degree.
- Common causes of bunions include wearing the wrong-size shoes, putting excessive pressure on the toes, high heels and inflammatory conditions like arthritis.
- Conventional ways to treat bunions include steroid injections, pain-reducers and in rare cases surgery. Shoe inserts and bunion pads are also very effective, and natural treatments like stretching and correcting your running form can help ease pain from mild t0 moderate bunions.