The foot is made up of many small bones that sit perfectly together forming many joints. The big toe joint comprises of the first metatarsal and the proximal (close) phalanx of the toe. A bunion forms when base of the toe (first metatarsal) drifts away from the second metatarsal. The 1st metatarsal rotates and drops and so no longer sits in its correct alignment. The tip of the first toe then rotates and drifts inwards. Overtime, under the continuing stress of this altered position of the joint and the irritation that this causes, the joint can become inflamed.
What causes bunions? This question is often answered by blaming shoes. But in fact, shoes only play a small role in developing bunions. Yes, shoes, especially high heels cause abnormal squeezing of your forefoot. This in turn to help promote a bunion. But if everyone who wore high heels shoes had a bunion, there would be a lot more then the 15% prevalence we see in the general population. As you can see from the flow chart, genetics plays the major role in development of bunion deformities. Genetics determines the way your foot functions. Are you flatfooted? Are your joints flexible or stiff? Do you have a high arch? Do you have tight muscles? These traits are determined by your genetic code. These characteristics then govern how your bones and joints move when you walk. As an example, if your joints are very flexible, this can cause an abnormal amount of instability in your forefoot when you walk. Over time, this abnormal motion will cause the a bunion to develop by allowing your first metatarsal to "drift" towards the mid-line of your body.
The most obvious symptoms of a bunion are. Pain in the area of the MTP joint, the joint where your big toe connects to your foot. Bending of the big toe in towards the other toes. An enlarged bump of bone or tissue at the MTP joint. Each symptom can range in degree from small to severe. Sometimes the pain can be sufficient to make it difficult to walk in normal shoes. Other symptoms may include. Swelling and inflammation of the skin around the MTP joint. Thickening of the skin in the area of the joint. Restricted motion in your big toe. Pressure from the inward bending of your big toe can affect your other toes, leading to corns on your smaller toes. Ingrown toenails on the smaller toes. Development of hammertoes in the other toes. Calluses on the bottom of your foot. If you have any of these symptoms, especially pain, displacement of your big toe or development of a bulge, you should consider consulting your physician. Even if you're not significantly bothered by some of these symptoms, bunions tend to continue getting bigger and more serious over time and should be taken care of before they do so.
Your doctor will ask questions about your past health and carefully examine your toe and joint. Some of the questions might be: When did the bunions start? What activities or shoes make your bunions worse? Do any other joints hurt? The doctor will examine your toe and joint and check their range of motion. This is done while you are sitting and while you are standing so that the doctor can see the toe and joint at rest and while bearing weight. X-rays are often used to check for bone problems or to rule out other causes of pain and swelling. Other tests, such as blood tests or arthrocentesis (removal of fluid from a joint for testing), are sometimes done to check for other problems that can cause joint pain and swelling. These problems might include gout , rheumatoid arthritis , or joint infection.
Non Surgical Treatment
Sometimes observation of the bunion is all that?s needed. To reduce the chance of damage to the joint, periodic evaluation and x-rays by your surgeon are advised. In many other cases, however, some type of treatment is needed. Early treatments are aimed at easing the pain of bunions, but they won?t reverse the deformity itself. These include changes in shoewear. Wearing the right kind of shoes is very important. Choose shoes that have a wide toe box and forgo those with pointed toes or high heels which may aggravate the condition. Padding. Pads placed over the area of the bunion can help minimize pain. These can be obtained from your surgeon or purchased at a drug store. Activity modifications. Avoid activity that causes bunion pain, including standing for long periods of time. Medications. Oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may be recommended to reduce pain and inflammation. Icing. Applying an ice pack several times a day helps reduce inflammation and pain. Injection therapy. Although rarely used in bunion treatment, injections of corticosteroids may be useful in treating the inflamed bursa (fluid-filled sac located around a joint) sometimes seen with bunions. Orthotic devices. In some cases, custom orthotic devices may be provided by the foot and ankle surgeon.
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.
To help prevent bunions be sure your shoes don't cramp or irritate your toes. Choose shoes with a wide toe box - there should be space between the tip of your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Your shoes should conform to the shape of your feet without squeezing or pressing any part of your foot. Avoid pointy-toed shoes.