4 Tips for Soothing Bunion Pain

Simple Ways to Reduce Pain and Avoid Surgery

A bunion, also known as hallux valgus, is a bone and soft tissue deformity of the foot that can cause constant or relapsing pain. While surgery is sometimes needed to treat a bunion, there are things you can do to avoid this and to alleviate some of the chronic pain you're experiencing.

bunion pain treatment
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell 

Why Bunions Are Painful

Bunions develop after years of abnormal pressure and motion force the outer toes inward. The persistent misalignment can lead to the malformation of the metatarsophalangeal joint and the ossification (remodeling) of the bone in the joint space. Over time, the joint can become so stiff and malformed that walking or even wearing a pair of shoes can become unbearable.

Gender Gap

Women tend to develop bunions more than men, in part because many of the shoes women wear have narrow toe boxes. High heels can make matters by forcing the toes even deeper into the narrowed tip.

The word bunion is derived from the French for bump, an apt description for the bony protrusion that typically juts from the side of the big toe. When it occurs next to the small toe, it is euphemistically referred to as a tailor bunion.

Easing Your Discomfort

These strategies may seem too minor to tackle what can often be significant pain, but they can go a long way in helping you get through the day more easily.

Use a Shoe Insert

If you have a painful bunion, you can relieve some of the pain by either padding the bunion from the outside or forcing the toes into a more natural position.

Bunion pads are readily available at most drugstores and are made either of moleskin, neoprene, foam, silicone or a gel-filled plastic. They lessen the pressure placed on the bunion while wearing shoes and tend to work best when wearing shoes with a wide toe box. While most bunion pads are applied with a removable adhesive strip, others are woven into the fabric of removal booties.

Toe spacers, as per their name, are placed between your toes. Most are made of contoured foam or plastic. While some only open the space between the big toes, newer, glove-like models are constructed of neoprene and separate all five toes.

Among the variety of bunion relief appliances, there are night splints that can gradually correct the toe alignment and even slip-on inserts that combine a bunion pad with individual toe separators.

Apply a Topical Analgesic

There are many different topical pain relief gels and creams available online or at drugstores. Some contain menthol which provides cooling relief, while others are made with natural ingredients like horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and arnica (Arnica montana), which some believe have inflammatory and analgesic properties.

Some of the more effective pain relief formulations contain capsaicin, a compound derived from chili peppers that temporarily blocks pain signals in the area of application.

Choose the Right Shoes

Even if the shoes you wear have low heels and a square foot box, they may not be fitted properly. Many foot problems arise simply because we tend to choose fashion over comfort and support.

While you may think you know your correct size, manufacturer sizes can vary enormously, leaving you swimming in some shoes and barely able to put on others. Moreover, your shoe size can change as you age since the vertical pressure placed on your feet can, over time, cause the bones and cartilage to literally flatten and spread.

Size Matters

To prevent or correct a foot problem, get your feet correctly measured every five years or so.

A specialty running shoe store is a great place to get your feet measured, as these retailers are likely to conduct a comprehensive foot evaluation. This not only involves the sizing your foot but an assessment of your foot alignment and arch.

The evaluation can provide you the insights to make a more informed choice when buying any shoes, including whether you need custom orthotics or arch supports. The better your shoes fit, the less likely your toes will slip forward and become compressed.

If searching for the right shoe to treat bunion pain, always look for the following features:

  • A toe box large enough to wiggle and spread your toes
  • A heel no higher than one to two inches
  • Malleable shoe material, such as canvas or a soft leather
  • Enough interior space to insert bunion pads or insoles
  • A moderately flexible sole (as opposed to a hard or flimsy sole)

Treat Foot Pain

If dealing with acute bunion pain, you should treat it no differently than any other type of joint pain. Among some of the common-sense tips:

  • Remove your shoes and elevate your feet to relieve some of the pressure and inflammation.
  • Apply an ice pack if the pain and swelling are extreme. Do so for no more than 15 minutes, moving the pack around constantly to avoid frostbite.
  • Soak your feet in cool (not ice) water to reduce swelling. Use a warm foot bath or a moist, steamed towel if you're experiencing joint stiffness.
  • Use an over-the-counter painkiller like Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) for occasional pain relief. Avoid overuse as it may lead to stomach upset, ulcers, or liver problems.
  • Stretch your feet with a simple set of routine exercises to keep the foot flexible and avoid stiffness.

Know, too, that maintaining a healthy weight can be helpful in reducing all types of joint pain.

When It Might Be Time for Surgery

While buying the right shoes and treating your feet gently can do a lot to reduce bunion pain, it cannot reverse the condition itself. Once a bunion develops, it is essentially permanent and can only be reversed by medical means.

This may include any number of bunion-reducing surgeries, including osteotomy (bone realignment), arthrodesis (joint fusion), resectional arthroplasty (removal of the damaged joint), or exostectomy (removal of the bunion bump only).

Most people will consider surgery if the bunion pain is affecting their mobility or diminishing their quality of life. If you are uncertain as to whether surgery is right for you, ask your podiatrist:

  • What are the risks and benefits of the treatment?
  • What results can I expect?
  • What is involved in recovery?
  • How is post-operative pain managed?

These responses, along with the cost of the recommended procedure, can help you make an informed choice.

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