People often think surgery is the only way to treat a bunion, an often painful, unsightly bump formed by progressive misalignment of the big toe’s main joint. Fortunately, most bunions can be managed with the noninvasive measures. Here are seven worth trying:
Buy roomy shoes. Look for flatsoled, lace-up athletic or soft-leather shoes with a deep, wide toe box, or open sandals with straps that don't touch the irritated area. Shop at the end of the day, when your feet are at their largest. Fit to your larger foot, with a half-inch of space in front of your longest toe and room for your toes to wiggle. Shoes should fit the minute you put them on. Shoes you already own that are too tight can be stretched at a shoe-repair shop.
Cushion the blow. A moleskin "doughnut" over the bump, and foam or lamb’s-wool spacers placed between your toes, can relieve pain and pressure. Devices such as splints and toe spreaders might make you feel better but there’s no evidence that they correct alignment or prevent bunion progression.
Ask your doctor about orthotics. If your bunion is related to having a flat foot, prescription shoe inserts can relieve pain and slow bunion progression by supporting the arch and taking pressure off the big toe. Avoid ready-made inserts, though, since they can cause new problems if they don’t fit right.
Go no-impact. Activities like walking that put stress on the foot may worsen bunions. Try cycling, swimming, and other exercises that remove or lighten the load on the front of your foot.
Use medication judiciously. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic) can ease temporary pain and swelling at the bunion site. But prolonged use of NSAIDs can increase the risk of stomach bleeding, ulcers, and heart problems.
Say no to shots. Cortisone injections can actually worsen bunions by weakening the ligaments that hold the toe in position. If you have pain that is chronic and severe, or a long-term bunion progresses rapidly with increasing pain, discuss surgery with an orthopedist or podiatrist.
Find out what might be causing your bunions, take a look at more ways to relieve bunion pain without going under the knife, and if you are considering surgery, see our Ratings (available to subscribers).
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.