A bunion (hallux valgus) is an enlargement of the bone or tissue around a joint at the base of the big toe or at the base of the little toe (in which case it is called a "bunionette" or "tailor's bunion"). Bunions often occur when the joint is stressed over a prolonged period. Ninety percent of bunions occur in women, primarily because women may be more likely to wear tight, pointed, and confining shoes. Bunions may be inherited as a family trait. Bunions may also result from arthritis, which often affects the big toe joint.
Bunions are most widely considered to be due to an imbalance in the forces that is exerted across the joint during walking. The resulting abnormal motion and pressure over the joint, over many years (combined with poor fitting footwear) leads to instability in the joint causing hallux valgus and bunions. Bunions are really only a symptom of faulty foot mechanics and are usually caused by a combination of the way we walk, the foot we inherit and inappropriate footwear use.
Symptoms include redness, swelling and pain which may be present along the inside margin of the foot. The patients feet may become too wide to fit into their normal size shoes and moderate to severe discomfort may occur when the patient is wearing tight shoes. A "hammer toe" may occur at the 2nd toe. This is when the toe contracts and presses on the shoe. Subsequently, this may cause a corn on top of the 2nd toe.
The doctor considers a bunion as a possible diagnosis when noting the symptoms described above. The anatomy of the foot, including joint and foot function, is assessed during the examination. Radiographs (X-ray films) of the foot can be helpful to determine the integrity of the joints of the foot and to screen for underlying conditions, such as arthritis or gout. X-ray films are an excellent method of calculating the alignment of the toes when taken in a standing position.
Non Surgical Treatment
In most cases the symptoms of bunions can be reduced or relieved without surgery. Reducing pressure on the bunion is the first step in reducing the pain associated with the condition. Wearing correctly fitting shoes is important in achieving this. A referral to a podiatrist may be made in order to assess the need for special orthotic devices, such as custom-made arch supports and shoe inserts (eg: metatarsal pad or bar). These can help to relieve tension on the base of the big toe and help prevent flat-footedness. Specific exercises and bunion pads available over-the-counter at pharmacies may also be of benefit. Anti-inflammatory medicines can help to ease pain in the short term. Steroid injections may be used to relieve severe pain. If a sufficient reduction in symptoms is not achieved by non-surgical treatment, then surgery may be recommended.
Surgery is the only way to correct a bunion. A bunion will usually get worse over time, so if it's left untreated it's likely to get bigger and become more painful. If your bunion is causing a significant amount of pain and affecting your quality of life, your GP may refer you to be assessed for bunion surgery. The aim of surgery is to relieve pain and improve the alignment of your big toe. Surgery isn't usually carried out for cosmetic reasons alone. Even after surgery, there may still be limits to the styles of shoe you can wear. Bunion surgery is often carried out as a day procedure, which means you won't have to stay in hospital overnight. The procedure will either be carried out under a local anaesthetic or a general anaesthetic.