I’m working on reversing a bunion growth that has been plaguing me with pain and ugliness. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% successful, but after a few years of trying different approaches, I’ve finally found one combination that does seem to have a promising effect and thought I’d share my experience with you.
First, the mandatory before and after pictures. I caught the bunion development early, before it completely rigidified – so I can’t speak to effective treatment of fully blown bunions, but if you are at a similar stage of development and are committed to improving your condition, then you’ll likely have similar success.
What are bunions and what causes them?
Bunions are a foot deformity caused by a repositioning of the bones in the foot such that the metatarsal, or the bone connecting your heel to your big toe is angled outward. It is not a bone growth on the side of the foot. The bunion is caused by a combination of weak arches and too narrow footwear. The footwear pushes the tip of the big toe inwards, which causes the base of the big toe to be pushed outwards. This, in turns, causes the metatarsal bones in the middle of the foot to spread out, and the transverse arch (btw., that’s the one that runs across the balls of your feet) collapses. Since the metatarsals in the middle of the foot are not designed to carry so much body weight under the collapsed arch, further reactions include rigidifying tissues surrounding the middle metatarsals, callouses, and hammer toes. It also means that your body weight isn’t properly supported either – and can wreak quite a havoc on your body, including callouses on your feet, ingrown toenails, the bunion, foot pain at the sides or bottom of your feet, knee pain and even back pain.
How are bunions usually treated?
Conventional therapy involves orthotics to correct the weight distribution across your foot, and surgery to splice and rejoin the outermost metatarsal in order to correct the big toe alignment.
However, neither therapy will be able to restore natural body function: they do not rebuild core arch strength, and do not reinstate flexibility where tissues have rigidified. Ideally, I’d like to be able to reverse the bunion and restore natural foot function and core strength, and that is what this post is going to focus on next.
How can I reverse the bunion growth and restore natural foot function?
I’d say there are four mandatory components to an effective treatment, because removing any of them would result in the failure of the restoration of natural foot function.
- Wear proper shoes. Finding good shoes is essential to allow you to recover. The most important part is having sufficient space for your toes and no heel raise. This means the key features to look for are a naturally shaped shoe with a wide toe box and a zero drop heel. As it happens there aren’t very many companies that produce healthy shoes: most shoes come with tapered toes and heels, which are the two features that are responsible for the bunion formation in the first place. Actually there’s so much to tell you about on this topic, that I’ll dedicate a complete separate post to follow up on the topic.
- Restore flexibility with a daily foot massage. The first thing to tackle is regaining flexibility in your arch. By flexibility I mean your ability to pull your foot together and spread it out again just by using your foot muscles and without using your hands. Depending on how rigid your bunion is, it may take two or three months before your foot tissues loosen up enough for you to be able to bunch your foot together without using your hands. At least, it took me that long to be able to get to a state where I could compress or expand my foot width by over a centimeter by moving my toes apart from each other or closer together. I’ll put together the detail on this in another post.
- Eat right. Your nutritional habits affect how much pain you experience and how much more rigid you make your joints by excess bone growth where you don’t need any, and remove toxins built up by exercise. If your nutritional habits weren’t that great so far, you may also have to address other issues, such as reducing weight, so that you can reduce the strain that your body weight causes on your feet. Since nutrition is such a detailed topic, I’ll put together the key take-aways of a pain-reducing diet in another post. If you happen to have other conditions that you want to address simultaneously, however, I’d strongly recommend talking to a dietary consultant about it as your own individual needs will vary accordingly. (Hint: Check out my consultation services!)
- Foot exercise to build strength and control! Believe it or not, exercise is the most important and effective. Attempting this before regaining flexibility (see #2 above) is futile and could result in further damage, so don’t bother trying. After regaining flexibility, you’ll be able to start a training regime to rebuild strength and control. There are quite a number of exercises available, so I’ll collect the most effective ones together in another post.
… That’s all! The rest is your hard work and dedication to continue following through on a regular exercise schedule, healthy eating habits, and healthy footwear.
Other (less effective) approaches
Here are some optional approaches that are worth mentioning because they often show up if you search online for solutions to the bunion problem – and before you invest in them, you should at least know how they work, when they help and when they don’t. I’ve ordered them from most to least effective, in my own humble opinion.
- Pelotte. This little pad props up the middle of your foot, forcing your metatarsals back into an arch form, recreating the transverse arch and thus improving the body weight distribution across your toes. This, in turn, reduces metatarsal pain in the balls of your feet. Especially at the beginning when your arches are weak, this little pad can go a long way to make walking more bearable – though it won’t improve your physical deformity, and won’t give your frontal arch the chance it needs to strengthen itself. When you are actively doing strength-building foot exercises, you should avoid using a pelotte. When you have attained sufficiently strong arches, you’ll also want to avoid using a pelotte as it allows your feet to be lazy and your arches will relax, losing muscle instead of working to support your body.
- Toe spacers. Toe spacers work by improving the gap between the smaller metatarsal bones, pushing the smaller toes apart, so that weight is more distributed evenly across the transverse arch. This provides you with additional foot stability. However, they also restrict natural toe movement. When you go barefoot, the nerve cells under your feet are activated, and you change the way you walk automatically in order to not get pricked by spiky things on the ground. If you don’t believe me, try jogging a few steps on a paved road or sidewalk. You’ll notice that your feet start paying more attention to the ground and, if your instincts are still there to help you minimize pain, you will land each step on your forefoot, carefully picking how to best support your body weight through your arches in order to minimize the pricking of the sidewalk. This natural effect of causing your feet to pay more attention, called proprioception, more than compensates for the toe spacers, so going barefoot is a much more effective training mechanism than wearing toe spacers. However, when you wear shoes, these senses are dampened by the shoes (even those really thin barefoot shoes will dampen the effect so much that your feet don’t stay attentive). So, toe spacers can have a corrective effect when used in combination with footwear, and should never be used barefoot.
- Metatarsal bandage. The idea of the metatarsal bandage is to bring the separated metatarsals closer together. However, prolonged use means that your arch muscles don’t need to work as hard, weakening them even more. If you are walking barefoot for extended periods of time without a strong arch, using a metatarsal bandage with an integrated pelotte may help (see #1 above), especially if you keep walking after you’ve tired out your arch support muscles. But make sure you don’t rely on such a bandage, and if you do use one, make sure that it is correctly fitted. A bandage that is too loose has no therapeutic effect, and a bandage that is too tight could cause additional damage the longitudinal arch along the inner side of your foot!
- Splint. In theory, a splint helps by binding and shortening the fascial tissues. This is a rather slow, painful long-term process. It also has a rather low success rate. And more importantly, if your tissues have already started to rigidify, a not very effective treatment. What happens when the surrounding tissues are already rigid, is that the tension from the splint can end up pushing your whole first metatarsal inwards as opposed to merely correcting the deviant metatarsal angle. So, whereas the splint effectively straightens your big toe, it doesn’t restore transverse arch strength. Instead, it can restore a better physical appearance without much effort, but does not provide the benefits of a natural, strong foot that can sustain proper weight distribution correctly.
So, that sums up the most important aspects I have to share. Eat well, exercise well, and become healthy again! Your foot is an extremely delicate and intricate masterwork, and whether you choose to preserve (or restore) healthy feet is up to you. Check back on my blog soon for the promised follow-up posts on selecting proper footwear, the pain-reducing diet, and bunion exercises!