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Foot problems like athlete’s foot and bunions aren’t just unsightly, but they can be uncomfortable too. Surgeons perform over 1 million bunion surgeries every year in the US, and sometimes multiple times on the same person. Thankfully though, it is possible to relieve the pain and heal bunions naturally.
What Are Bunions?
What bunions are and what people think they are can be two very different things. Some sources claim bunions are overgrown bone and the extra calcium can be cut off or dissolved. In reality, bunions are an increase in tissue development and swelling on the first toe joint. Over time the joint hardens. Bunions that form on the pinky toe are sometimes called tailor’s bunions.
Who Gets Bunions?
According to Katie Bowman’s, Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief, women and the elderly are more likely to have bunions. Women’s shoes (especially heels and stilettos) are more likely to squeeze the toes in, causing bunions.
Some experts claim bunions are genetic so you’re more likely to have them if your parents do, but there are some problems with that argument.
What Causes Bunions?
Before we get rid of something it helps to know how it got there in the first place. Conventional podiatrists (foot doctors) are taught that bunions are passed down in the family and are a structural deformity in the bone.
Some people have soft tissue in their feet that’s less elastic, which can be hereditary. When these feet are shoved into tight, narrow toe boxes, they’re less likely to bounce back to a normal foot shape when out of the shoe.
However, the problem doesn’t begin in the genes, it begins in the shoe. Babies aren’t born with bunions and there’s a clear pathway to getting a bunion – modern-day shoes. Podiatrist Ray McClanahan explains how shoes with a narrowing toe space and other unhealthy features are largely to blame for bunions. When the big toe is consistently squeezed into narrow-toed shoes, the lower toe joint bulges out and can form a bunion.
In other words, wearing high heels locks the foot in plantar flexion, as if you were standing on your toes. This creates altered muscular recruitment patterns and can affect the joints above it.
Out of Step
Some people put excess pressure on the side of the foot when they walk. This can be due to narrow stiff footwear, improper gait, or a combination of both. When we put too much pressure on the lower big toe joint, this pushes it out and helps form a bunion.
What Bunions are NOT
Contrary to some popular opinions, bunions are not calcium deposits or just a hereditary structure problem. However, once the big toe joint begins to dislocate and deform, there can be swelling and hardening that increases the joint size. Some experts say this enlarged joint is extra bone growth, while others like Dr. McClanahan claim it’s not.
Common Ways for How to Get Rid of Bunions
Conventional podiatrists will likely recommend a wider shoe, arch support orthotics, and possibly surgery. There are several reasons why this won’t fix the underlying problem.
A Wider Shoe Isn’t Enough
If you’ve ever been to a shoe store you might have used something called a Brannock device. This metal tool measures the ball of the foot’s width to recommend what width of shoe to use. However, our toes are naturally designed to splay wider than the ball of our foot.
The Brannock device isn’t measuring the most critical point, which is the toe box. And even if it did, most shoes are designed with a tapered toe that squeezes toes in. Simply getting a wider shoe at the ball of the foot that doesn’t allow the toes to completely spread won’t fix the issue.
Still, minimalist shoes may help prevent them.
Arch Support Won’t Cut it
We have dozens of muscles in our feet that serve an important purpose. Not only do they work with nerves to send vital feedback to our brain, but they’re designed to support us with a stable foundation. When feet are put into regular shoes these muscles can’t move, can’t do their job, and over time weaken and atrophy.
Using arch support for bunions won’t fix the underlying problem, which is muscle deformity and weakness. However, there are exercises that help rebuild the natural arch support in the foot.
When the gluteus medius is not working properly in the frontal plane (side-to-side), the knee usually collapses inward. This is known as a valgus collapse. This causes one to over-pronate (where the entire foot tilts inward), placing extra stress on the big toe. Walking side-to-side with a resistance band around your knees will help to strengthen the gluteus medius. Side step-ups also recruit the gluteus medius.
Surgery for Bunions
Doctors often recommend surgery for more severe bunion cases. For bunion surgery, part of the bone is cut off, then the surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments are rearranged. The surgeon may also put plates and screws into the foot to help hold the shape.
According to John Hopkins, side effects are common and can include numbness, swelling, nerve damage, and long-term or permanent pain. Even after surgery, if the root cause isn’t addressed the bunion will likely come back. Fortunately, there are other options.
How to Get Rid of Bunion Pain
Since surgery can sometimes cause or worsen bunion pain, many are looking for a natural alternative. These remedies can help alleviate the pain and pressure on the joint. However, it’s important to also use exercises and proper footwear to correct bunions long term.
Increasing circulation can also help promote healing in the area. Warm compresses, massage, exercise, and healthy food choices improve circulation.
A 2004 study in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, Garlic supplementation increases peripheral blood flow, looked at circulation. The garlic group saw significantly more blood flow than the control group.
Essential Oils for Bunions
Rosemary essential oil also stimulates circulation and can be diluted and massaged on the area. Essential oil safety expert Robert Tisserand recommends a maximum 6.5% dilution, depending on the chemotype. This would be no more than about 33 drops of essential oil per 2 tablespoons of carrier oil, however, benefits can be seen with a much lower dilution.
Pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory essential oils, like copaiba and peppermint may also help. Peppermint generally shouldn’t be used above 5% maximum, which is about 25 drops per 2 tablespoons of carrier oil. Like rosemary, these can be diluted and massaged on the area for relief.
Products like Correct Toes help feet and toes spread out to a normal shape for optimal function. These devices create a small space between each toe and can be worn barefoot or in certain barefoot/minimalist shoes. When the big toe is braced in the correct position it can help train the muscles and improve bunions.
In this small study people with bunions wore sandals with toe spacers. After 3 months, they all reported significantly less foot pain and better function.
Barefoot shoes like Vibram’s FiveFingers hold each toe in a separate pocket so they’re naturally spaced apart.
Shoes with a narrowing toe box, toes that lift up, and a heel can cause and worsen bunions. The toes are squeezed together, which can dislocate the big toe joint and cause a bunion. Shoes with heels (especially women’s high heels!) put more pressure on the front of the foot and big toe joints.
Even most tennis shoes with their narrow toes and cushioned heels prevent proper muscle movement and put pressure on bunions.
Proceed With Caution
Simply switching to barefoot or minimalist shoes will make the muscles start doing their job again, however, it should be done cautiously. Muscles that aren’t used to activating and supporting the foot can easily become injured when they’re suddenly thrown into barefoot shoes.
Those who aren’t used to barefoot and minimalist shoes should start slowly to avoid injury, especially for exercise and running. Here’s how to find healthy shoe options for adults and kids.
If specific foot muscles aren’t strengthened, the big toe will continue to pull out of place. Our foot muscles control toe splay and function and modern footwear weakens these muscles. Healthy shoes are an important step, but bunion exercises are just as important!
Because we sit far too much in today’s world, this causes inhibition—decreased activity—of several muscle groups, most notably the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius. There are two muscle groups that keep us upright against gravity–the gluteus maximus and the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus).
When the foot is in plantar flexion, the calves become overactive. This further inhibits the glute muscles which control the joints below the hip. This is why a total-body assessment of your joints and gait pattern proves essential.
Here are some resources for foot exercises and stretches, specifically bunion exercises.
- Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief by Katie Bowman
- Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief by Katie Bowman
- Nutritious Movement customized exercise plans from Katie Bowman
- Healthy Moving Bunion Workshop from Carol at Alignment Rescue
Acupuncture for Bunion Relief
While acupuncture won’t cause a partially dislocated bone to move back in place, it can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain. A 2018 article in JAMA, Effect of Acupuncture vs Sham Acupuncture or Waitlist Control on Joint Pain Related to Aromatase Inhibitors Among Women With Early-Stage Breast Cancer, offers more insight.
A 2018 study in a Chinese medical journal looked at acupuncture’s ability to relieve foot inflammation and pain. In this animal study acupuncture treatment worked as well as prescription Methotrexate to relieve joint swelling and bone deformity.
The Bottom Line For How to Get Rid of Bunions
Despite best efforts, some bunions won’t completely disappear or may require surgery. Thankfully though there are plenty of safe, natural approaches to try first.
- Choose footwear that allows toes to spread and muscles to move freely.
- Use exercises to strengthen specific foot and leg muscles.
- Toe spacers can help train toes to stay in the right shape.
- Increase circulation and reduce inflammation.
Word of Caution
Sometimes people with bunions and foot pain have a lot of issues going on in their feet (some they may not even know about!). It’s important to work with a qualified specialist when doing any exercise program to avoid injury.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you healed bunions naturally? What worked for you?