A bunion is a common deformity at the base of your big toe which may cause foot pain or make it difficult finding shoes that fit.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What are bunions?

A bunion, also known as hallux valgus, is when your big toe turns towards your other toes. The joint in your big toe deforms, which causes a bony lump on the side of your foot. Skin in this area can thicken, in response to rubbing against your shoes, and tissues can become inflamed. This causes pain and swelling. 

Sometimes a soft swelling will develop over the lump called bursitis. Sometimes a smaller bunion can appear on your little toe called a bunionette.

Causes of bunions

In most cases, it may not be obvious why a bunion has formed, but certain things increase your risk of getting them including:

  • Activities such as rock climbing or ballet
  • Being a woman
  • Family history of bunions
  • Foot abnormalities
  • Joint problems such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Wearing tight-fitting or high heeled shoes

How to tell if you have bunions

If you have a bunion, you may notice:

  • Difficulty finding shoes that fit and are comfortable
  • Difficulty moving your toe or foot
  • Foot pain — including pain caused by increased pressure on the ball of your foot (metatarsalgia)
  • Hard lumps at the base of your big toe
  • Red and sore skin over the lump
  • Your big toe pointing at your other toes

You might also: 

  • Develop arthritis in your big toe
  • Develop corns or calluses around your big toe
  • Develop a deformity in your second toe
  • Notice your big toe is pushing your second toe upwards

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for bunions

Although bunions often need no medical treatment, see your GP or a doctor who specialises in treating foot disorders (podiatrist or orthopaedic foot specialist) if you have:

  • A visible bump on your big toe joint
  • Decreased movement of your big toe or foot
  • Diabetes — foot problems are usually worse in people with diabetes
  • Difficulty finding shoes that fit properly because of a bunion
  • Noticed your bunions getting worse
  • Persistent pain in your big toe or foot 

Usually, your doctor can tell you if you have a bunion after conducting a simple assessment. They'll look at your feet and toes and watch you walk.

An X-ray can show the level of deformity.

Complications of bunions

Bunions can cause other conditions to develop, including: 

  • Bursitis — inflammation of small, fluid-filled sacs (bursae) in your joints
  • Hammertoe — an abnormal bend in the middle joint of a toe; this usually occurs in your second toe and causes pain and pressure
  • Metatarsalgia — pain and swelling in the ball of your foot

Common treatments for bunions

Your GP may refer you to a podiatrist to give you advice on how to manage your bunions. If you have bunion pain, this can be eased by:

  • Applying ice packs if your bunion is inflamed, sore or swollen, or if you've been on your feet for a long time — if you have circulation problems or reduced feeling in your feet, get advice from your doctor before applying ice packs
  • Losing weight
  • Taking over the counter painkillers eg ibuprofen or paracetamol 
  • Using bunion pads to stop shoes rubbing against your toes
  • Using insoles or bunion correctors (splints) — these spread the pressure more evenly across your foot to help prevent your bunion getting worse; if these are not effective, you can speak to your doctor about getting prescription orthotics 
  • Wearing flat, wide, well-fitting shoes that give your toes more space and avoiding high-heeled, tight, pointy shoes — shoes with laces or straps are best as they allow you to more easily adjust the fit of your shoes to accommodate your bunion

If your bunions are very painful or are reducing your quality of life, your GP may recommend a surgery called a bunionectomy or an osteotomy. This will straighten out the joint in your big toe as much as possible and consequently improve the appearance of your big toe and reduce your pain. Surgery is usually a day case and can be performed under local or general anaesthetic. It is the only way to get rid of bunions. 

Bunion surgery can involve removing, realigning and pinning of your bones to:

  • Correct the deformity
  • Narrow your foot
  • Straighten your toes

A common type of bunion surgery is a scarf osteotomy, which refers to the shape of the bone cut used by the surgeon. Bunion surgery can be used to: 

  • Completely replace the big toe joint with an artificial joint
  • Fuse the joint so it cannot move (arthrodesis)
  • Trim parts of the joint

Risks of bunion surgery include: 

  • Not being able to fully straighten your big toe
  • Stiffer or weaker toes
  • Still experiencing some bunion pain
  • Your bunions returning
  • Your feet still being a little wide — you will likely need to wear wide, comfortable shoes even after surgery

It takes several weeks to recover from bunion surgery. During your recovery, it is recommended that you:

  • Stay off your feet as much as possible for the first two weeks
  • Avoid driving for six to eight weeks
  • Take leave from work for six to 12 weeks
  • Avoid sports for up to six months

Prevention of bunions

As the cause of bunions is usually not known, you may not be able to prevent bunions developing. However, you can reduce your risk by: 

  • Avoiding high-heeled, pointy and/or tight shoes
  • Wearing shoes that are the right size and have a good amount of space for your toes

Frequently asked questions

How do you get rid of bunions on your feet?

If your bunions are very painful or are reducing your quality of life, see your GP. They can refer you to a surgeon so you can have your bunions surgically removed — this is the only way to get rid of bunions.

Can bunions go away?

Bunions do not go away on their own. Surgery is the only way to get rid of bunions and is usually a day case, carried out under a local or general anaesthetic. However, in most cases, surgery is not needed and you can manage your symptoms by wearing shoes that fit well and provide enough room for your toes.

Why do people get bunions?

The exact cause of bunions is unknown. However, there are several risk factors for developing bunions, which include being a woman, wearing tight-fitting or high heeled shoes and performing activities such as ballet or rock climbing. You are also at greater risk if you have a family history of bunions, or have foot abnormalities or joint problems eg osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

How do you stop a bunion from growing?

One of the most effective ways to stop a bunion from growing bigger is to use well-fitting, wide shoes that support your feet and provide enough space for your toes. Bunion pads and bunion correctors (splints) can help too. You can also speak to your doctor about prescription orthotics.

How can I shrink my bunions naturally?

You can’t shrink your bunions naturally but you can reduce the pain they cause and help prevent them getting worse by: 

  • Applying ice packs 
  • Losing weight
  • Taking over the counter painkillers eg ibuprofen or paracetamol 
  • Using bunion pads 
  • Using insoles or bunion correctors (splints) 
  • Wearing flat, wide, well-fitting shoes 

Does going barefoot help bunions?

Walking barefoot can help bunions as it strengthens your foot muscles and doesn't restrict your feet or toes, so they can be in their natural position. However, you should be careful about the surfaces that you walk barefoot on to avoid injury.

What exercises fix bunions?

Exercises that strengthen your foot muscles can help with bunions. These include: 

  • Gripping a towel on the floor with your toes and pulling it towards you — do this when sitting down 
  • Rolling your foot back and forth over a tennis ball
  • Toe points and curls
  • Toe spread-outs
  • Toe circles

Do bunion correctors work?

Bunion correctors (bunion splints) can’t get rid of bunions — only surgery can do this. However, as they help spread the pressure evenly across your foot, they can prevent your bunion from getting worse.

Are flip flops bad for bunions?

Yes, flip flops and other footwear that does not support the arches of your feet are bad for bunions. Flip flops put extra pressure on your big toe joint and make your toes grip harder to keep your flip flops on your feet. This can aggravate your bunions.

Why is my bunion throbbing?

If you have been on your feet for a long time or are wearing high-heeled, tight or pointy shoes, your bunion can become inflamed. This can cause it to throb. Applying ice packs, resting your feet and taking over-the-counter painkillers can help relieve your pain.

Can acupuncture help bunions?

There is currently no conclusive evidence that bunions can be effectively treated with acupuncture. 

How do you know if you are getting bunions?

You may notice a hard bump developing at the base of your big toe, as well as redness, soreness or swelling around your big toe joint. You may also develop corns or calluses between your big toe and second toe as your big toe is pushed towards and rubs against your second toe.

Are bunions painful to touch?

If your bunion becomes inflamed, it can swell and feel tender — this can make it painful to touch.