Your grandmother probably complained about her bunions, but the fact is, anyone can develop this misaligned and swollen joint at the base of the big toe.
Your big toe contains two joints. The larger one is the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint, located where the first metatarsal (long foot bone) meets the phalanx (first toe bone).
When you take a step, the MTP joint bends so you can push off the foot and move the other leg forward. That means the MTP joint briefly has to fully support half your body weight. It’s no wonder it develops problems.
At Chicagoland Foot and Ankle, board-certified podiatrist Dr. Robert Sheffey and his team are bunion specialists, offering treatments to ease the pain and restore your range of motion. One question we get asked a lot is if bunions will go away on their own. Here’s the answer.
Bunions don’t happen overnight. They develop over a long period, usually from the toes being pressed together, as they are with a shoe that has a narrow toe box or high heels. That weakens the ligaments holding the toe in a straight position, and the big toe angles toward the second toe.
As the big toe moves inward, the bones move out of alignment, creating a bulge at the MTP joint — a bunion. As it grows, the bump rubs against your shoes, becoming red, swollen, and sometimes painful. It becomes hard to find shoes that fit or, in advanced cases, even to walk.
You can also develop smaller bunions at the base joint of your little toe; these are called “tailor’s bunions.”
While stress on the MTP joint definitely contributes to bunions, researchers believe they’re likely due to a combination of factors, including:
- Foot injuries
- Arthritis (joint inflammation)
- Abnormal bone structure (congenital)
- Flat feet
- Extremely flexible ligaments
We’ve mentioned a narrow toe box and high-heeled shoes as contributing factors in bunion development, but it’s unclear whether these cause bunions in the first place or whether they merely make an already existing condition worse.
Because they alter the structure of your feet, bunions can cause a number of complications.
The displaced joint can irritate the bursa, a fluid-filled sac that cushions it. The irritation leads to inflammation and swelling, limiting movement in the other toe joints. This inflammation is called bursitis.
Another complication is the formation of hammertoes.
When the big toe tilts toward the second toe, it can slip underneath it. In response, the middle joint of the second toe bends and gives the toe a hammer-like appearance. The bent joint can rub against the tops of your shoes, causing calluses, open sores, and pain.
A third bunion complication is metatarsalgia. Because you alter your gait to favor the deformed joint, the pain and swelling manifests in the ball of your foot.
Do bunions go away on their own?
The short answer is no. Once the joint becomes deformed, it can’t undo itself. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer.
Noninvasive therapies such as bunion pads, foot taping, and custom orthotics can improve small bunions that don’t cause much pain, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories are adequate to resolve mild pain.
Physical therapy is another option for mild-to-moderate bunion problems. It helps by strengthening the joints and tendons in your foot while preventing other podiatric issues from getting started.
If the bunions cause you too much pain to engage in PT, a steroid injection into the MTP joint can deliver temporary pain relief long enough to let you do the exercises.
If your bunions are advanced, though, and the MTP joint becomes significantly deformed, surgery may be the best option to relieve pain and restore function.
Some procedures remove swollen tissue around the joint, some realign the bones, and some remove a portion of bone tissue. We make the determination which to use based on your medical history, symptoms, and the stage of deformity.
If you have bunions that are causing pain or altering the way you walk, we at Chicagoland Foot and Ankle can help correct the problem and restore function. Give us a call at any of our Chicago-area locations, or book your appointment online today.
We have offices in the Mount Greenwood and Portage Park areas of Chicago, and in Orland Park and New Lenox, Illinois.