Written in collaboration with Andy Bryant, Podiatrist.
Bunions can be a real nuisance. But there’s quite a lot that can be done about them! Whether it’s the pain, the dysfunction, or the look of the bunion that is bothering you, there are practical steps to improve the condition without the aid of surgery.
We’re talking about more than ice & rest here. But we’re also not making empty promises of miraculous cures. This is a podiatrist’s guide to actually improving your bunions by getting at the underlying issues.
Got bunion pain? Let’s take a dive.
- What Is A Bunion?
- What Causes a Bunion?
- What To Do About Your Bunion
- Bunion Before & After
What Is A Bunion?
Contrary to popular belief, a bunion is not a growth on the outside of your toe joint. A bunion (aka hallux valgus) is actually a misalignment of the foot. The joint at the base of the big toe – or sometimes little toe – moves away from the foot, causing the head of the bone to protrude out to the side and the toes to angle inward.
The more those joints move out of alignment, the more the head of the bone protrudes – giving your foot that classic bunion shape. No growth, just exposed bone. Ouch!
A foot with a bunion is widest at the base of the toes. By contrast, a natural foot shape is widest at the tips of the toes.
So how does one get a bunion to begin with?
What Causes a Bunion?
The root cause of bunions is multifactorial. This means there are likely multiple overlapping reasons you have a bunion.
Do Genetics Cause Bunions?
Traditionally bunions have been blamed entirely on genetics, but we’re starting to see that the environment our feet are in (and the body they’re attached to!) has a large effect on the formation of bunions.
Even still, there are two genetic factors worth noting that Dr. Andy sees implicated in the formation of bunions.
- A wide intermetatarsal angle – This is a foot type you can be born with where there’s a wider than usual angle between the 1st and 2nd bones of the foot. Bunions are more common in those with a wide angle and less in those with the bones closer to parallel.
- Joint flexibility – You are more likely to have a bunion if you have very flexible joints, both locally at the foot and in general throughout the body (hypermobility). Women tend to have more joint flexibility than men, which is one possible reason bunions are more common in women than men.
But these factors do not dictate whether or not you will have bunions! Many people who are genetically predisposed never have bunions, and many people who aren’t predisposed do have bunions. You can’t control your genetics, but you can control your environment.
Does Lifestyle Cause Bunions?
Despite the fact that there are genetic factors that can predispose you to bunions, the reality is our lifestyle choices have a tremendous impact on our foot health.
Factors such as how strong and dynamic our core is, how multi-dimensional our movement patterns are, and – perhaps most importantly – the shoes we wear daily, can all influence whether or not we develop bunions.
Does Footwear Cause Bunions?
If you live in a shoe-wearing culture you likely have had your feet housed in shoes for most of your life. And unfortunately most shoes today are widest at the ball of the foot and then taper toward the toes – the exact shape of a foot with a bunion! So is it all that surprising that so many of our feet match the shape of the shoes we wear every day?
We know that bodies can be morphed and changed by external stimulus – think foot binding, ear gauges, neck rings, and corsets. Combine a foot corset (aka restrictive shoe) for hours on end with a genetic predisposition for bunions, and a bunion may very well be the result.
And because we rarely see bunions in populations that don’t wear shoes, it makes sense to consider our footwear. Pointy fashion shoes might be another reason we see bunions more frequently in women than men.
Will Barefoot Shoes Fix My Bunions?
So if I stop wearing pointy-toed shoes and start wearing foot-shaped shoes, my bunions will go away? Not exactly! Barefoot shoes have a natural foot shape to them that doesn’t squish the big toe, and Andy has seen numerous cases of bunions improving over time simply by switching to this type of footwear. But unfortunately “fixing” a bunion is not often so straightforward.
When the big toe joint changes its position to form a bunion, the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the area also change. They might get tighter, weaker, stronger, or looser. So addressing these soft tissue changes alongside better footwear and lifestyle choices is a more holistic approach to improving your bunions.
What To Do About Your Bunion
As a podiatrist, Andy works with people affected by bunions everyday. And he has seen many of them reduce their pain, restore function, and even sometimes completely reverse the bunion through the steps laid out below. The degree to which you can improve your bunion varies from person to person, but if you’d like to avoid surgery this is where you start (and we’d recommend starting sooner rather than later).
Please note that surgery is always an option – but let it be the last option. Bunion surgery is a big deal, and giving rehabilitation a proper chance can bring so much relief that you might be able to completely avoid surgery. If you do end up with bunion surgery you will still benefit from the recommendations here as you will have healthier feet going in and better results coming out.
Here is how Dr. Andy treats patients with bunions:
Foot Shaped Footwear
While we’ve already established that footwear is not the end-all-be-all for bunions, it cannot be understated that shoes must be part of the discussion. If you want to give your foot a chance to realign itself (and you wear shoes for long periods of time), those shoes need to have space for the big toe to lay straight.
All the exercises and support in the world won’t be enough if we put a foot with a bunion back into a pointy, tapered shoe all day everyday. So step 1 is to wear anatomically shaped shoes.
Interested in barefoot shoes? Here is how to get started!
It’s worth noting that at first “foot-shaped” shoes might have more space than you can fill, because bunions cause your toes to compress together. So consider your new pair of shoes as aspirational – you need to stop squishing your feet and provide an opportunity for your toes to spread out. Over time your toes likely will start filling up the shoe, especially if you use toe spacers with them.
Another low hanging fruit when it comes to improving bunions is toe spacers. Toe spacers can help realign the foot and are easy to add to your life. They’re the opposite of squishy footwear – instead of compressing your toes together, toe spacers coax them apart.
There are many different types of toe spacers. We like Correct Toes best because they are adjustable, come in 4 sizes for different shaped feet, and you can wear them all day – even inside shoes and while exercising.
There are also many one-size-fits-all spacers available, such as these from The Toe Spacer. But those tend to spread the toes more aggressively and are not as easily worn all day as Correct Toes. They work best for average sized feet, and for shorter periods of time. The upside is that these spacers are fairly cheap, so might be a more accessible starting point.
If your bunions are severe enough that these full foot spacers are hard to tolerate, a single spacer can be used between the 1st and 2nd toes. You can also modify the above spacers to fit your foot by cutting portions off.
Read more on the benefits of toe spacers in this article.
Mobilize The Toes & Foot
Now is where you have to put in a little elbow grease, because mobility in the joints is necessary if you want to see a change in your foot alignment. Not only will it improve the bunion, but it also is necessary for your foot to do its job of absorbing impact and propelling you forward.
In particular, the big toe joint needs 60-70 degrees of bend to function properly. Bunions are often stiff and that amount of flexion might be really difficult! Here are some ways you can improve the mobility of your foot.
- Self massage – This simple technique is surprisingly effective.
- Rolling over a ball – You can apply pressure under the bunion and the entire foot.
- Wearing flexible shoes – So you get natural motion of your foot throughout your day (barefoot shoes are flexible!).
- Walking barefoot on uneven surfaces.
Strengthen The Toes & Foot
Just as with any other muscle in the body, our foot muscles can be strengthened by loading them.
Mobility in the joints makes it possible for your bunion to move back into alignment, while strength in the joints helps increase the stability needed for them to stay in alignment. The fun thing about foot exercises is a lot of them both mobilize AND strengthen!
Here are a few of our favorites
- Toe yoga – keep the heel planted and isolate the movement of your big toe and outer toes by lifting them individually.
- Toe grabs – place a hacky sack or towel, under the ball of your foot and pull it toward you and then away from you using only your toes (heel planted).
- Toe squeezes – place a ball under your big toe and squeeze down on it for 15 seconds. Then lift the big toe away from the ball and hold for 15 seconds. You can do the same exercise with the the ball under your outer toes.
In general you want to do each exercise for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until fatigue/cramping. It’s very likely this will feel challenging at first, even frustrating! It’s ok if your movements are small at first – keep at it and watch your progress!
Read more about exercises to strengthen your feet here.
You can also improve the health of your feet by strengthening your ankles, calves, and shins. That means that being more physically active in almost any way will help your feet too.
Strengthen The Ankle
When the ankle is strong and capable, it can relieve pressure on the foot and improve your overall gait. Because bunion development is related to foot dysfunction, better ankle health can improve your bunion. And ankle exercises are almost always foot strengthening exercises too!
Here are some easy ways to strengthen your ankles:
- Balancing – walk on a balance beam or other uneven surfaces
- Calf raises
- Jumping rope barefoot
- Single leg deadlift
Mobilize & Strengthen the Hip
The hip has a direct connection with the functioning of your foot – that is why people with stiff, immobile hips often have dysfunction in their feet. Living a movement rich and variable lifestyle is one of the best ways to keep your hips mobile and strong. Don’t underestimate how much it can impact your foot health!
Our favorite way to improve the strength and mobility of your hips is to sit on the floor. Ditching the chair and opting for squatting and as many different sitting positions as possible can work wonders. We also recommend taking movement breaks regularly to break up your sitting. If you want to more intentional hip work, CARS are a fabulous exercise!
Bunion Before & After
You can see here examples of people who have changed their footwear and worked on their foot function to improve their bunion. These changes vary from person to person, and often take a long time to become evident. But we have seen over and over that change is possible! And even if your bunion doesn’t visibly change shape, natural foot care can prevent further damage and reduce pain & inflammation.
As you can see, a bunion is much more than a gift from your parents. Which means there are things you can do about it! The steps in this article can help you improve the symptoms of your bunion and prevent further damage. Even if you have no visible bunion, your feet and body will benefit from making some simple changes!
Want to work with someone to intentionally rehabilitate your bunion? The Gait Happens Fit Feet program is personalized to help you with your specific foot issues. They are leading experts on foot rehab and offer some of the best remote treatment you’ll find.
Andy Bryant has been a podiatrist in Melbourne, Australia for 22 years. After a long time of practicing “conventional” podiatry, Andy’s yoga practice intrigued him to consider the potential of the feet to be strengthened. His experiences soon filtered into his clinical practice where he empowers clients with education and tools to look after their feet more naturally.
16 thoughts on “How To Help Your Bunions If You Don’t Want Surgery”
Love this! I had a very painful bunion years ago and lost most of the mobility in my right big toe. Most of my family on my mom’s side have awful bunions. I talked with a podiatrist friend who only gave me the option of surgery, but I looked for other answers and found the barefoot community. I did lots of foot exercises at home, transitioned my shoes, and after a couple of years, I regained full mobility and lost all pain. It was worth it! I sometimes forget how bad that joint felt when I move my foot now.
That’s amazing Kristen! So glad to hear you were able to turn things around.
Hey, thanks for this article. I developed a bunion on my right foot when I was a pretty serious distance runner a few years ago. I had a wonky gait. I was also wearing some Brooks shoes at the time that didn’t agree w/me. My bunion appeared over the course of about six weeks.
I’m no longer a serious runner and I have tried some exercises to rehab my bunion. I try to do some joint mobility and I work on strengthening my ankles and feet with a lot of single leg balance exs barefoot or in my Xero shoes. Fortunately I don’t have a lot of pain unless my feet swell, like when it’s hot, and the swelling irritates a nerve on top of the joint. I’m going to add some of these exs to my routine. I would really like to have a lot more mobility in that joint.
I hope they help!
I stumbled across your page trying to find information on tailor’s bunions/bunionettes. The podiatrist I saw told me to find wide toe box with a hard, inflexible sole that doesn’t bend. She couldn’t give me any other suggestions besides New Balance or Hoka shoes. I need shoes for the office, client meetings, boots for the winter, etc., beyond walking shoes so it was disappointing and frustrating to not have any more direction that NB or Hoka. In trying to research wide toe box shoes, I keep coming across barefoot shoes, which is the opposite of the hard, inflexible sole criteria I was given. So what’s the difference and what’s better for healing and preventing further irritation? She also told me toe yoga was fine but probably wasn’t going to do much. She never brought up toe spacers, only expensive custom made orthotics.
I hate to go against what your podiatrist is recommending, but I got very similar recommendations myself when I was dealing with chronic big toe pain. I tried it all, and it didn’t help. That’s what led me to foot rehab and barefoot shoes. You might want something with more cushion to begin with, but unless your big toe is rigid I am not sure why exactly you would need inflexible shoes. If you want to hear more about what I tried and how I was able to transition to barefoot shoes, I told my story on the Mark Bell Power Project podcast this year.
And if you want to explore foot shaped shoes with more cushion, here are some options:
Thank you Anya and Andy. You are such an inspiration. All my pains are gone thanks to you!
What high praise, thank you so much Tatiana!
Beautiful article. Thank you!
Thanks for this article! I was interested in learning more about the CARS exercises for hip issues, but the YouTube video linked here is “no longer available.” Got an alternative?
Thank you for letting me know, I’ve swapped out the link. Here is a great alternative from Markow Training: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNyXBq30VuQ
You should absolutely check out Petra Fisher for more info on CARS. I am part of her Take10 program and I love it.
Anya! I’m so glad your site exists so we can get reviews on shoes that are good for our feet. As someone with a bunion, Softstar Shoes have been a game changer.
Have you come across any barefoot rubber boots yet? I live in a wet climate in southeast US and we get rain often.
Thank you! Yes indeed I have some leads on rubber boots. A new one was released about 6 months ago from Xero Shoes. All the best barefoot rain boots I list out here:
Hello Anya, I am 59 and began wearing a half-orthotic insert at 55 due to foot pain and over-pronation. I went to get these replaced around Christmas time. While I was waiting, I grew impatient about my feet and decided to try a pair of ankle boots that didn’t have the volume to allow an orthotic. My podiatrist had said to me that if I wore orthotics most of the time, I could probably get away without one sometimes… well! I wore the boots in very successfully without orthotics, gradually increasing the time I spent in them, until I decided to wear them for two days straight. They were snug, which felt supportive, and I had no pain in them whatsoever. At the end of the second full day of wearing them, I took them off to discover my left foot had ‘collapsed’ into a bunion shape with the first metatarsal visibly out of line. I’m devastated!
I now want to try and correct this by strengthening and wearing toe spacers in shoes with lots of toe room, but I’m too scared to go without orthotics again, as I don’t want the right foot to also collapse or the left to get worse. Are there any ‘barefoot’ shaped shoes which have enough depth or volume to allow for an orthotic which is a good 2 cms high at its tallest point under the arch?
Hi Catherine! If you choose a shoe from this list of Barefoot Shoes with Cushion you could swap out the insole and replace it with your own orthotic. Brands like Altra in Original Fit and Lems have a wider toe box but more of a traditional build. They would be the easiest to use an orthotic in.
Sorry to hear about your troubles, I hope you are able to make some good headway!