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Understanding Bunions: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Long-term use of narrow shoes can have lasting consequences on the foot’s functional anatomy and are legitimately tied to the formation of bunions–a foot deformity in the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint at the base of the big toe.

While many believe bunions are hereditary, research backing this belief is uncertain. More firmly established research provides evidence that narrow shoes, especially on feet that are still growing, is the root cause of bunions.

How Do Bunions Form?

Conventional shoes taper in the toe box, which squish the toes together and can lead to a number of foot injuries, including the formation of bunions. 

Bunions form when the foot is chronically crammed into a shoe with a narrow toe box, which just so happens to be the shape of many conventional shoes. The tapered shape of traditional toe boxes pushes the tip of the big toe toward the small toes, which forces the bone at the base of the big toe to turn outward. 

As the bunion forms, you will notice a small, sometimes red, bump jutting out from the first joint of your big toe. The bunion may feel painful, especially while wearing shoes.

Why are most shoes narrow anyway? 

Plain and simple: a narrow shoe looks better, and is more sleek. For most athletic shoes, a narrow toe box makes the shoe look aerodynamic and fast. For most conventional running shoes, a narrow toe-box is a design feature that facilitates a faster foot rollover, propelling the body forward more easily. However, the real cost of this design is the heavy assault on the natural shape and function of the human foot.  

Other Causes of Bunions

Aside from narrow toe boxes, heel elevation can lead to the growth of a bunion. Whether the shoe is a fancy high heel or a running shoe with a stacked cushioned heel, the raised heel tips the body’s weight forward, forcing all of the toes into the tip of the shoe while simultaneously putting additional pressure on the big toe.

A 2020 study from Harvard Health showed that bunions are 10 times more common in women than men, thanks to more regular wear of high-heeled shoes.

Bunions are also common in individuals who work in professions that require standing for long periods of time, such as teaching, nursing, and working in a restaurant. 

Are Bunions Bad?

While some people can have bunions without experiencing pain, bunions are typically quite painful and can limit functionality in the foot.

The MTP joint is responsible for bearing and distributing weight evenly across the foot. Left untreated, bunions can worsen and lead to other foot problems, such as corns, hammertoes, and ingrown toenails on other toes.

Over time, bunions can inhibit exercise and even walking, leading to a sedentary lifestyle, which can then lead to a host of other health issues and diminished quality of life.

You Have Bunions, Now What?

A bunion isn’t a sentence to life on the couch! There are several treatment options that can reduce the pain, increase flexibility in the MTP joint, and even decrease the growth of the bunion.

It’s not uncommon to hear that bunions can only be treated with surgery. Not only is this not necessarily true, but surgery doesn’t always “cure” the bunion. It’s not uncommon for bunions to return after surgery.

The best approach is to build foot strength and change your shoes.

Non-surgical Treatment of Bunions

There are a number of ways to treat bunions and prevent further damage. Even if your bunions are well-established, the treatment options below can alleviate some of the pain and reverse some of the damage. 

Switch to a Natural Shaped Shoe 

Changing the shape of your shoes should be the first step in your treatment plan. Natural, or foot-shaped shoes, like Lems, provide ample space for the toes to naturally splay. This allows the toes to expand and stay flat in their natural shape, leading to increased toe strength.

Stronger feet means improved balance, quicker response time to terrain, and more importantly, prevention of bunion growth.

Wear Correct Toes

Correct Toes are silicone toe spacers designed by a podiatrist with bunions in mind. These toe spacers help adjust the foot back to its natural shape, restore functionality, and reduce the effects of long term wear of tapered shoes.

The roomy toe box in Lems shoes also enables bunion sufferers to wear Correct Toes while wearing shoes, including during activities like running and cycling. Socks like Injinjis can facilitate the wear of Correct Toes while wearing shoes.

Build Foot Strength and Mobility

Many people hit the gym to build strength in order to avoid injury and increase performance in their chosen sport, however, we often neglect to focus on foot strength!

This is especially important if you suffer from bunions or other foot deformities. We put together a list of 7 foot-strengthening exercises to improve performance, increase strength and mobility, and reduce injuries.

Dedicate just a few minutes each day to building foot strength and you’ll notice a difference over time.

The bottom line is the feet are like seeds, and with continued nurturing, they will flourish. This is why it’s important to wear a shoe with a structure that pairs perfectly with the shape and functional needs of the human foot. 

If you want to get your feet back on a healthier, pain-free path, Lems are the perfect choice for bunion sufferers because of their signature wide and flat design, encouraging forefoot expansion and toe splay. This also makes it easier to reverse bunion growth and acquire a wider forefoot that’s stronger and more balanced with the ground.

Always remember that the issue of bunions comes down to footwear! The best option for change is by wearing a shoe with a wide toe box that compliments the natural shape of the foot, and grants a wide toe splay. From this, bunions will be a distant worry and you’ll always have a stronger and safer foundation between yourself and the ground.

Additional Articles

Understanding Hammer Toes: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Learn more about what causes hammer toes, recognize the symptoms, and understand how to treat them if they do appear. Better yet, read this post to make sure that you never develop them yourself!

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JFK believed every able-bodied adult American – especially his military officers – should be able to march 50 miles should the need ever arise. Although his brother Robert was able to complete the "Kennedy March" in Oxford shoes (ouch!), there are much better footwear options available. The loss of a kinesthetic culture has many contributing factors, but society's choice of increasingly impractical footwear is certainly one. 

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