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What are bunions?

Women's feet with painted nails and a visible bunion, she rubs her feet asking what are bunions
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Bunions are a bony bump that appears on the side of the foot at the bottom of the big toe. They are often painful and can make walking more uncomfortable however there are treatments that can help.

Here we share the most common causes of bunions, including signs to look out for and things you can do to ease symptoms.

What causes bunions?

It’s often not clear what causes bunions however there are thought to be two main reasons:

  • A genetic weak foot structure
  • Joint problems such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis

Wearing high heels or pointy, tight shoes could also cause bunions, or make an already weak foot structure worse. This is because these styles of shoes put pressure on your toes and force them together, causing friction on the skin and joints.

Symptoms and signs of a bunion

The main sign of a bunion is a large, angular bump on the side of the foot next to the big toe. This occurs at the joint where the toe meets the foot. It often looks red or darker than the rest of your skin and will be hard, inflamed or swollen.

 This can cause various symptoms including:

  • Your big toe to point at an angle towards your other toes
  • Stiffness and pain in the big toe
  • Thickened skin
  • Calluses
  • Difficulty walking or moving your big toe

Stiff joints elsewhere in the body could also indicate that you have arthritis, particularly if they are worse in the morning. Make sure to speak to your GP if you have any of these symptoms.

How to get rid of bunions?

Surgery is the only way to fully get rid of bunions however there are also non-surgical treatments that may help to ease symptoms.

Non surgical options

  • Wearing toe spacers, supports (splints) and padded insoles to reduce pain
  • Taking pain medication such as ibuprofen and paracetamol
  • Making sure your shoes are flat, wide and fit you properly
  • Losing weight if you are overweight to lighten the pressure on your feet
  • Soothing the bunion with an ice pack for up to 5 minutes

Surgical options

Surgery is the best and only way to treat bunions in the long term. Your GP will be able to advise whether it is the right option for you, and refer you to a podiatric surgeon.

This operation is known as an osteotomy and can involve removing the bunion and inflamed tissue from your toe joint, realigning bones if at an abnormal angle and straightening your toe bone with permanent screws or staples. It is a quick procedure completed under a general aesthetic.

Recovery from bunion surgery takes up to 12 weeks, requiring you to stay off your feet for at least 2 weeks.

Bunions sometimes come back after surgery however most people find it improves symptoms and the shape of their foot.

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When to see a doctor for bunions?

If you have tried a few home treatments and not seen any improvements, you may wish to see your GP, particularly if:

  • Your pain is not improving or interrupting daily life
  • Your bunions are getting worse
  • You have diabetes (in which case foot problems can be more serious)

How to ease the pain from bunions?

Whilst you can’t get rid of bunions at home, there are various things you can do to lessen the pain of bunions yourself.

Protect bunions

Various bunion treatments can be bought over the counter or online to help ease pain. Bunion pads are often the most effective - they are soft or gel-filled pads that protect your bunions from rubbing against your shoes.

Bunion sleeves are also an option; a light non-slip strap that cushions the bunion to ease rubbing. They can also help to correct your foot structure, gently pulling your toe back into place.

Try insoles

Padded insoles can reduce discomfort by protecting your feet from rubbing against the soles and sides of your shoes. They can also help to slow the progression of a bunion from worsening overtime.

Buy well-fitted footwear

Wearing high heels and pointed shoes can worsen bunions over time, making them more common in women than men. Make sure to wear wide fitted shoes with a flat, soft sole when possible, or lower heels if necessary.

Splints

Bunion splints (toe supports) may help to reduce pain. They wrap around your foot, so they normally can’t be worn with shoes so may only ease symptoms at home or during the night. Make sure to speak to your GP before using a bunion splint.

Anti-inflammatory pain relief

Over the counter medication such as ibuprofen can help to relieve pain and reduce swelling. Note that these should only be used under a doctor’s guidance, particularly if taken with other medication or on a regular basis. Make sure to speak to your local pharmacist for more advice. 

Having a bunion can be unpleasant - you may be in pain or struggle to walk without it hurting. However there are many things you can try to ease symptoms at home including pads, cushions, foot supports and over the counter pain relief.

Discover our range of treatments for bunions and calluses, as well as footcare medication that may help you. You can also find out more about how to look after your feet at LloydsPharmacy advice hub, as well as caring for feet when you have diabetes.

References

www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/muscle-bone-and-joints/conditions/bunion-hallux-valgus
www.nhs.uk/conditions/bunions
https://rcpod.org.uk/common-foot-problems/what-are-bunions
https://creakyjoints.org/living-with-arthritis/bunion-pain-treatment