Foot Problems People Mistake for a Bunion

Many people think that every problem of the big toe joint is a bunion and want bunion surgery (known as a bunionectomy) to saw the bunion away. It turns out there are several foot problems that look like bunions but are not.

A bunion is a bony prominence causing an enlargement on the side of the big toe. Bunions are not bone growths. Rather, they occur from a malalignment of the big toe joint that causes the bone to push outwards. Bunion surgery involves repositioning the out-of-place bones.

Because bunions come in various sizes, it's not always clear if the problem is a bunion. So before you sign up for a bunionectomy, learn about what other conditions masquerade as bunions and how to treat these foot problems. 

Big Toe Joint Arthritis

Food conditions mistaken for bunions.
BSIP/UIG/Universal Images/Group

Arthritis of the big toe joint is the most common bunion look-alike. One of the hallmarks of big toe joint arthritis (known in medical circles as hallux rigidus) is bone spurs that form on a joint as a result of the degenerating cartilage.

These bone spurs can be quite large and painful. The skin overlying the bone spurs can become red and inflamed, just like a bunion. Bone spurs with arthritis tend to occur on the top of the big toe joint, which is different from bunions, where the bony prominence is on the side.

Bunions, however, can occur along with arthritis of the big toe joint. X-rays would help determine the extent of the arthritis and how/if it contributes to bunion pain.

Ganglion Cyst

Ganglion cysts are firm, fluid-filled sacs that occur all over the body. When they occur around the big toe joint, they can be confused with a bunion. A ganglion develops around a joint and often connects to the joint, which is from where the fluid originates.

Ganglions can be distinguished from bunions by feel since ganglions are softer to the touch. Because ganglions are fluid-filled, they will "light up" when they are transilluminated. This is a test that shines light on a body part to check for abnormalities.  

Cysts can be painful, and an over-the-counter painkiller could help provide relief.

Gout

Gout is a common problem of the big toe joint, causing it to become acutely red, hot, and swollen. Bunions are also known to get reddish in color from the direct pressure of the bunion within a shoe.

Gout is a condition in which the big toe joint (and other joints, too) develop internal crystals from an overabundance of uric acid in one’s bloodstream. These sharp crystals cause intense pain in the big toe joint.

Sometimes, gout is difficult to diagnose because blood tests may be normal. X-rays of the big toe joint may present gouty changes of the joint (known as gouty arthritis).

Bony Prominence

The biggest misconception with bunion surgery is that bunions are outgrowths of bone and can be shaved off. Bunions are not bone growths. However, the underlying bone may be enlarged and prominent, giving the appearance of a bunion.

It's common to see bony enlargements that occur with bunions, but they also occur when a bunion is absent. X-rays can easily identify whether there is a bony enlargement.

While bunion surgery involves repositioning the malaligned bones, most procedures also involve shaving away any bony prominence at the big toe joint.  

Bursitis

Bursitis is a common cause of redness and swelling that occurs over joints, often from overuse or direct external pressure. The big toe joint is susceptible to bursitis as it bears the entire load of the body and can be irritated by shoes.

A bursa at the big toe joint is nothing more than trapped inflammatory fluid between the skin and underlying bone. People with bunions are more susceptible to developing a bursa.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a bunion and a bone spur on your toe?

    Bunions are caused by a deformity of the bones and soft tissue while a bone spur is related to a problem with a foot joint. A bone spur is usually caused by osteoarthritis and sometimes by rheumatoid arthritis. People with arthritis are also prone to bunions, but footwear and injury are most often the cause of bunions with a family history increasing your risk.

  • Can you have a bunion on the outside of your foot?

    Yes. A “tailor’s bunion” or bunionette may occur on the outside of the foot by the little toe. This small bunion can develop a hard callus due to friction from shoes. 

  • What happens if you don’t fix a bunion?

    Bunions can worsen over time, causing bursitis and calluses. Your toes may be forced out of alignment, which could lead to serious deformities. If left untreated, bunions can cause arthritis and long-term damage. 

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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