What Is a Bunion?

Many people think of a bunion as a cosmetic problem, because a bunion is a bump that sticks out on the inside of the foot, at the base of your big toe joint. But bunions can cause pain, inflammation and other problems that may require medical treatment.

When the big toe presses against your other toes, the joint at the base of the toe gets larger and starts to stick out. As a bunion grows, it can push the big toe under or over the other toes, and the joint can become sore and inflamed.

Our orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists are specially trained in treating foot problems. We’ll first try nonsurgical methods – like better footwear and physical therapy – to make your foot feel better.

If you need surgical treatment for a bunion, our experts will discuss all your options. These procedures may include realigning the toe joint or surgically repairing tendons and ligaments.

The Aurora Difference

Bunion Treatment From Foot Experts

Bunions are more than a cosmetic issue. In fact, they’re a type of foot deformity. That’s why it is important to get bunion treatment from foot experts, like those at Aurora Health Care.

Our team will carefully evaluate your feet to identify the cause of your bunions. Then we’ll provide treatment options to help relieve pain while walking, working and doing the activities you enjoy most.

At Aurora, you’ll find:

  • Convenient locations: With coverage across eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, it’s easy to see a doctor and find physical therapy close to home. See our locations.
  • Fast, accurate diagnosis: As one of Wisconsin’s largest regional health care systems, we treat many feet. Seeing many people means our doctors have extensive experience analyzing and understanding your condition. We’ll get you answers quickly so you can start treatment and feel better, fast. Learn more about orthopedic diagnosis.
  • Coordinated care: All members of your care team will communicate closely with each other to provide you with the best care possible. Your doctor and your physical therapist will work together to find personalized treatments that work for you.

Symptoms & Causes

Bunion Pain: Causes of Bunion Pain

Bunions can be inherited – after all, the shape and structure of your feet come from your parents. However, the biggest factor in how bunions grow tends to be shoes that squeeze your toes unnaturally. That’s why women experience bunions more often than men do.

Bunions may result from:

  • Tight or poorly fitting shoes: Especially narrow, pointed shoes that force the toes together, like high heels
  • Heredity: Foot shape or biomechanics (foot movement patterns)
  • Inflammatory disease: Health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis (rheumatoid pannus)

Signs & Symptoms of Bunions

The clearest sign of a bunion is a bump on the inside of the foot, about an inch below the big toe.

You might notice other symptoms of a bunion like:

  • A callus (toughened skin) where the bunion rubs on your shoes
  • Pain in the joint or in the toes
  • Stiffness in the toes – especially the big toe – that makes walking painful or hard
  • Toes that overlap, which indicates severe bunions


Tests to Evaluate Bunions

If you have a bunion, you and your doctor can probably identify it by sight.

Your doctor may do additional tests to learn more about the bunion and its cause. These tests may include:

  • X-rays: X-rays let your doctor visualize inside the bunion. The X-ray provides information about how the toes are aligned. You will have an X-ray while you are standing, so we can see how your foot’s shape changes when you put weight on it.
  • CT scan or other imaging: If we need more information about the cause of the bunion, we may order other imaging. Computed tomography (CT scan) combines pictures of bone and soft tissue from multiple angles, giving us a more comprehensive view of your bunion.
  • Blood tests: To learn whether another condition has caused the bunion, we may order blood tests.

Learn more about orthopedic diagnosis.

Health Issues Related to Bunions

Bunions can cause related problems, including:

  • Bursitis: Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa (a fluid-filled sac that cushions the bone). When a bunion forms, the bursa becomes irritated and painful.
  • Arthritis: Bunions can cause the bones of the foot to rub at uncomfortable angles. This rubbing can wear away the cartilage, the smooth tissue that cushions the ends of bones. The result can be arthritis, a painful condition that can cause bone deterioration. Learn more about arthritis.
  • Hammertoe: Bunions can cause the toe next to your big toe to bend abnormally, creating pressure and pain. Learn more about hammertoe.

Types of Bunions

Most bunions form just below the big toe, but there are other types of bunions, too:

  • Bunionette: A bunionette is a bunion that grows in the joint below the little toe, on the outside of the foot. A bunionette is a bunion’s smaller cousin because the joint is smaller.
  • Adolescent bunion: Sometimes a bunion forms in a young person’s foot – usually in girls between the ages of 10 and 15. These bunions are usually genetic (inherited) rather than caused by shoes.


Treating Bunions

Bunion surgery can provide pain relief and restores normal foot function. However, nonsurgical methods are often enough to treat many bunions, especially if you catch them early.

Nonsurgical Treatment for Bunions

Before you consider bunion surgery, try these treatment options:

  • Well-fitting footwear: Choose shoes that have a wide toe box that is large enough to hold your toes without pressuring them. Choose shoes with low heels and/or padding, like athletic shoes.
  • Padding: Give your skin some relief with moleskin or gel bunion pads, available at your local pharmacy. Find a pharmacy location.
  • Taping and splinting: We can show you how to tape your toes to help keep them in a normal position. Some people also find relief from wearing a splint at night.
  • Pain medication: Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can reduce pain and inflammation. Talk to your doctor or find out more about the orthopedic pain we treat.
  • Custom foot orthotics: Orthotic shoe inserts support your foot and control its position. They can provide pain relief and keep the condition from getting worse. Learn more about custom foot orthotics.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy treatments like ultrasound therapy, whirlpool, massage, heat therapy and icing can provide relief from bunion pain. Learn more about orthopedic physical therapy.
  • Injections: We can inject medications to minimize pain and inflammation and make it easier to move your joint. Read more about injections for joint pain.

Bunion Surgery

If you’ve tried nonsurgical treatments without success, you might be ready to talk to your doctor about surgery. Surgery can help when a bunion interferes with wearing regular shoes and keeps you from fully enjoying your life.

Your doctor will talk with you about your specific foot shape and your surgical options. We may perform surgery to:

  • Realign the toe joint
  • Repair tendons and ligaments
  • Remove part of the bump or joint

Most people go home the same day they have bunion surgery. Recovery usually takes about 4 to 8 weeks before you can return to all of your regular activities.

Bunion surgery may not eliminate the bunion entirely, but it does provide pain relief for most people. After surgery, it is important to avoid poorly fitting shoes, or the bunion will likely return.

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