Even though bunions are a common foot deformity, there are misconceptions about them. Many people may unnecessarily suffer the pain of bunions for years before seeking treatment.
A bunion (also referred to as hallux valgus or hallux abducto valgus) is often described as a bump on the side of the big toe. But a bunion is more than that. The visible bump actually reflects changes in the bony framework of the front part of the foot. The big toe leans toward the second toe, rather than pointing straight ahead. This throws the bones out of alignment—producing the bunion’s “bump.”
Bunions are a progressive disorder. They begin with a leaning of the big toe, gradually changing the angle of the bones over the years and slowly producing the characteristic bump, which becomes increasingly prominent. Symptoms usually appear at later stages, although some people never have symptoms.
Bunions are most often caused by an inherited faulty mechanical structure of the foot. It is not the bunion itself that is inherited, but certain foot types that make a person prone to developing a bunion.
Although wearing shoes that crowd the toes won’t actually cause bunions, it sometimes makes the deformity get progressively worse. Symptoms may therefore appear sooner.
Symptoms, which occur at the site of the bunion, may include:
Symptoms occur most often when wearing shoes that crowd the toes, such as shoes with a tight toe box or high heels. This may explain why women are more likely to have symptoms than men. In addition, spending long periods of time on your feet can aggravate the symptoms of bunions.
Bunions are readily apparent—the prominence is visible at the base of the big toe or side of the foot. However, to fully evaluate the condition, the foot and ankle surgeon may take x-rays to determine the degree of the deformity and assess the changes that have occurred.
Because bunions are progressive, they don’t go away and will usually get worse over time. But not all cases are alike—some bunions progress more rapidly than others. Once your surgeon has evaluated your bunion, a treatment plan can be developed that is suited to your needs.
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:
If non-surgical treatments fail to relieve bunion pain and when the pain of a bunion interferes with daily activities, it’s time to discuss surgical options with a foot and ankle surgeon. Together you can decide if surgery is best for you.
A variety of surgical procedures is available to treat bunions. The procedures are designed to remove the “bump” of bone, correct the changes in the bony structure of the foot, and correct soft tissue changes that may also have occurred. The goal of surgery is the reduction of pain.
In selecting the procedure or combination of procedures for your particular case, the foot and ankle surgeon will take into consideration the extent of your deformity based on the x-ray findings, your age, your activity level, and other factors. The length of the recovery period will vary, depending on the procedure or procedures performed.
After surgery, you’ll be in a post-operative shoe (a big sandal), use crutches, and have pain medication. You will be able to put weight on the heel and outside portion of the foot immediately after surgery. Your foot will be quite sore for the first week or so. You will need to elevate your foot almost continuously for one week to minimize swelling. This will help reduce infection and increase range of motion.
You will return to the office at one week for a dressing change and x-rays and then at 10-14 day intervals for six weeks for dressing changes. At six to eight weeks, another set of x-rays will be needed to assess healing. If the bone is healed, you’ll be in tennis shoes for a few months with a toe spacer. Most patients are back in normal shoes by four to five months. Swelling may recur with activity for the first six months. Dress shoes should be avoided for the first six months. A toe spacer or night splint may be used in certain cases for six months to maintain correction.
Distal chevron osteotomy (Austin) or Akin bunionectomy. This operation is usually done through a single incision and uses absorbable pins or small screws to hold the bones together in the corrected position. This is done for mild and moderate bunions and recovery is relatively quick. But you still will be in a postop shoe for six weeks and be on crutches for three to four weeks.
Proximal Osteotomy/shaft osteotomy. This operation is a big deal! We cut the metatarsal bone and put it in a corrected position. It requires two or three incisions and is used for severe bunions. The recovery is longer, and you will be on crutches for six weeks or more. The swelling after surgery will also be a factor, and you’ll need to elevate your foot for the first week (toes above the nose). The osteotomy is held with screws and wires in some combination. You’ll be in a postoperative shoe for eight to 10 weeks, and then you will go into a sneaker. Most patients are back in normal shoes by four to five months. Swelling may recur with activity for the first six months. Dress shoes should be avoided for the first six months. A toe spacer or night splint may be used in certain cases for six months to maintain correction.
1st TMT Fusion. This surgery is a bigger deal! Some patients may need a fusion of the 1st tarsometatarsal joint. With this surgery, the patient will be in a cast for six weeks with minimal weight bearing during that period. After the cast comes off, the postoperative course will be similar to the above procedures.
Other associated procedures. Patients may get other related procedures at the same time (e.g., hammertoes, neuroma, callous surgery) that will increase recovery time and change the above plans.
Shoewear: Before surgery, one-third of the patients with a bunion can wear any shoes they want. After surgery, studies have shown that two-thirds of patients can wear any shoes they want. This is an improvement, but still leaves one-third of patients with some limitations of shoewear.
Back to work: This depends on your age, job, and commute. If you are young, work at a desk, and live close to work, you can probably return to work in approximately two weeks. If you have to take public transportation or have to drive to work, you’ll need to be out longer.
Back to sports: Patients may return to sports at about five to six months following surgery. This means running, tennis, etc. With exercise such as bicycling, stairmaster, etc., you can return within two to three months. Occasionally, running at a reduced paced may be allowed at earlier intervals.
Both bunions at one time: Technically, this can be done, but patients are quite limited for three to four weeks after surgery. For patients with the proximal osteotomy, you’ll need to be in a wheelchair for a few weeks because of the pain.
Driving: If you have an automatic transmission and only have surgery done on your left foot, you could probably return to driving after you are no longer taking narcotic pain medications (percocet, vicodin, demerol, etc.). If you have a standard transmission or are having your right foot operated upon, you may not be able to drive for two months or longer.