Everything you need to know about bunions

Bunions are often painful and, quite frankly, not pretty. They also affect more than your ability to wear your favourite shoes. Here’s how to deal with them.

When it comes to health and wellness, our feet are usually low-ish on our priority list.

But they shouldn’t be, podiatric surgeons Dr Rob Hermann and Dr Burke Hugo say.

Our experts say common foot problems, including bunions, can affect our mobility, our balance and our confidence – stopping us in our tracks when it comes to exercising… and enjoying life.

In fact, at least a third of older Aussies do (or will!) suffer from bunions.

Here’s what you’ll want to know about these annoying lumps.

So, what are bunions?

Also known as hallux valgus, a bunion is an abnormal bony lump that develops at the main joint between your big toe and foot, Dr Hermann, president of the Australasian College of Podiatric Surgeons, says.

“The joint slowly dislocates over time and its structure changes so that it becomes inflamed and malformed – a little bit like the front wheel of your car being out of alignment,” Dr Hermann explains.

“It can be a progressive deformity, causing the big toe to angle towards the other toes.”

“The altered mechanics, and pressure on the joint, can also contribute to arthritis in this big toe joint,” Dr Hugo, head of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery at The University of Western Australia, adds.

What are the symptoms of a bunion?

If you have a bunion, you’ll likely notice a bump forming to the side of your big toe joint.

“As the joint gets wider and more deformed, it makes it harder to fit shoes,” Dr Hermann says.

“There’s often a follow-on effect with the rest of your foot because, as the big toe becomes unstable and can’t take the weight of the foot, the adjacent toe joints are overloaded and become hammered.

“Even more, your gait may change because the pain overloads your ankle and back – there’s quite good evidence to show that people in their older years with an unstable toe joint or foot have a higher propensity for falls.”

What causes bunions?

Good question, and it’s a tricky one to answer, Dr Hugo says.

Inflammatory joint conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can increase your likelihood of developing bunions, as can genetics, your foot structure and wearing supertight or narrow shoes, which force your toes into an unnatural position.

“There’s also a higher prevalence of bunions in women and the elderly,” Dr Hugo says.

“There are theories that perhaps pregnancy hormones influence the ligaments and soft tissue, leaving the joint more prone to misalignment.”

How can I treat my bunions?

Our experts say it’s important to consult a healthcare professional or a podiatrist if you have a bunion, especially if it’s causing pain or mobility issues.

“It’s no different to seeing a dentist, so see a general foot podiatrist if you suspect you have a bunion developing,” Dr Hermann says.

Treating bunions without surgery

Early interventions include switching to more appropriate footwear, wearing cushioned bunion pads and/or orthotic shoe inserts, and taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen to relieve the pain.

Maintaining a healthy weight also helps reduce pressure on the joints of the foot.

When you may need surgery for bunions

If your foot becomes more deformed or painful, you may need surgery.

“There are various surgery techniques available, depending on the extent of the problem, and the success rate is very high,” Dr Hugo says.

“Yes, there’s a little downtime when you need to be off your leg, but it’s often simpler than people think.”

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Written by Liz McGrath.