An ugly problem with an ugly name—hallux valgus
Last summer I noticed I had the beginning of a small bunion.
Horrified, I wanted to find out if there was anything I could do to keep it from becoming bigger, uglier and more painful.
Anything except surgery. The last thing I want is foot surgery.
I also wanted to know how to prevent a bunion from developing in my other foot.
But I had to admit that I knew next to nothing about the lowly bunion, so I had to do a little research first.
Who gets bunions?
A bunion develops when, after years of stress, the bones of your big toe’s base joint shift out of alignment. This creates the classic bump.
A bunion can make walking, standing and wearing shoes extremely painful.
The biggest risk factors for developing a bunion are:
- age (what doesn’t get worse with age?)
- having flat feet (low or no arches)
- having a history of wearing high-heels, poorly-fitting shoes or shoes with no arch support (like flip flops)
- having a job that keeps you on your feet all day (like a nurse!)
Women typically develop bunions more than men because we are more likely to wear high-heels that scrunch our toes and put a lot of pressure onto the balls of our feet.
But men can get them, too. My brother had a severe bunion that required surgery (I saw the x-rays; it was bad!). He had a lot of complications with the surgery, including infection and pain, which is one reason why I want to avoid surgery.
Prevent bunions or treat them early
The best way to prevent bunions is to start young! If you have kids, make sure they always wear properly fitted shoes and teach them the importance of good footwear.
Don’t pass on to children that stupid saying “Beauty is pain.” Wrong. Pain is pain.
Other tips to prevent bunions are:
- Avoid pointy-toed stilettos; they’re the worst!
- When you buy shoes, ask that your feet be measured for size and width. Different shoe styles fit differently, but it’s a good place to start.
- Especially if you are on your feet all day, look for shoes with a wide toe, good arch support, and a slight heel (1-1.5″). Keen brand shoes have been recommended to me.
Once a bunion has started forming, there is really nothing you can do to realign the bones. I’ve seen videos that claim you can, but you can’t.
And most bunions will get worse if you don’t change something about the mechanics around your foot, such as wearing proper shoes with enough arch support or doing exercises to strengthen your foot muscles.
Unfortunately, not a lot of research has been done on how well these conservative treatments help avoid surgery. I did find one study in the Cochrane database that said custom-made orthotics or arch supports can be useful in treating bunion pain.
Custom-made supports can be very expensive (up to several hundred dollars), and are usually ordered through podiatry offices or physical therapists.
I’ve been doing these exercises for the last year. I’m pleased that my bunion has not gotten any bigger, and the pain I was having—which was strangely a lot for such a minor bunion—is pretty infrequent now.
I try to do these exercises with both feet once or twice a day. They don’t take long, and they don’t require any special equipment—just an old tennis ball. I can do them while sitting at my desk, standing in the kitchen or watching TV.
- Stretch: Using your fingers, pull your big toe into proper alignment and hold for ten seconds. Repeat 4 times.
- Flex: Point your toes straight ahead for 5 seconds and then curl your toes under for 5 seconds, as if you’re trying to grab something with your toes. Repeat 10 times.
- Strengthen: While standing, squeeze a tennis ball between your ankles. Then raise up on the balls of your feet, keeping your ankles level. Slowly lower yourself back to the floor. Repeat 10 times.
- Massage: Place a tennis ball under your foot and roll it around for a few minutes.
If your bunions are more serious and you are considering surgery, here are some good resources for more information:
- American Podiatric Medical Association
- American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
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