A bunion is an enlargement of bone at the great toe joint. Tight shoes don't cause bunions, but they can aggravate them. Bunions are often inherited and become worse over time if left untreated they can cause pain, swelling, skin irritation and other foot problems. Bunion deformities are often part of a more generalized problem related to improper foot motion. There are presently over 25 types of bunion procedures performed today. The choice of procedure is based on many factors.
The main cause of bunions is excessive pressure being placed on the front of the foot, and is usually the result of wearing high-heeled shoes with pointed toes. A study by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society found that 88 percent of women in the United States wear shoes that are too small and that 55 percent of them have bunions. Overall, bunions are nine times more common in women than men. In some cases, bunions are hereditary; they also may be caused by arthritis or polio.
While bunions may be considered cosmetically undesirable, they are not necessarily painful. In cases where the individual has minor discomfort that can be eased by wearing wider shoes made of soft leather and/or with the aid of spacers-padding placed between the toes to correct alignment-further treatment may not be necessary. (Anti-inflammatory agents can be used to alleviate temporary discomfort at the site of the bursa.) For those who continue to experience pain on a daily basis and who cannot wear most types of shoe comfortably, surgical treatment may be the best choice.
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
Your doctor may recommend a prescription or over-the-counter pain reliever, as well as medication to relieve the swelling and inflammation. A heat pad or warm foot bath may also help relieve the immediate pain and discomfort. A few people may obtain relief with ice packs. If your bunion isn't persistently painful and you take action early on, changing to well-made, well-fitting shoes may be all the treatment you need. Your doctor may advise use of orthoses (devices that are used to improve and realign the bones of your foot), including bunion pads, splints, or other shoe inserts, provided they don't exert pressure elsewhere on the foot and aggravate other foot problems. In some cases, an orthotist (someone trained to provide splints, braces and special footwear to aid movement, correct deformity and relieve discomfort) can recommend shoes with specially designed insoles and uppers that take the pressure off affected joints and help the foot regain its proper shape.
An operation may be advised if a change of footwear does not ease symptoms. The aim of the operation is to straighten the joint as much as possible and relieve pain. It is not usually done just to improve appearance. It can be done using a local or a general anaesthetic and you are usually out of hospital the same day. The operation chosen by the specialist depends on the severity of the bunion, the shape of your foot, and other factors, such as if you have arthritis in the joint. There are many different types of operation which are used to treat bunions. These range from operations to trim parts of the joint, to a total artificial replacement of the big toe joint (similar to a knee or a hip replacement). A common surgical procedure used is called a scarf osteotomy (osteotomy means a cut in the bone). An operation is usually successful at easing symptoms, but not in all cases. It is not always possible to relieve the pain completely or make the toe perfectly straight. Your specialist will be able to advise on the pros and cons of surgery, and the success rate of the chosen operation. Continued pain, infection and the bunion returning are some of the complications of surgery of which you need to be aware. You will need to continue to wear sensible, wide-fitting shoes for six months after the operation.
If the diagnosis is made early on, such as in preadolescence, bunion development can be slowed and in some cases arrested with the proper supportive shoe gear and custom functional shoe inserts (orthotics). Avoidance of certain athletic activities with improper shoe fit and toe pressure can prevent the symptoms that occur with bunions.