Those unsightly protrusions from the base of your big toe that make running painful and put holes in the sides of your shoes.
Even the scientific name is terrible: hallus valgus.
These embarrassing foot conditions affect about a quarter of the population and can cause severe pain and even hinder daily activities like walking and running. Fortunately, there’s a way to prevent them reaching such an extreme level.
So what exactly are these bumps and what can we do about them?
What Causes Bunions?
Like any foot issue, there are a number of causes of bunions.
- low arches
- flat feet
- loose joints and tendons
- weak foot muscles
- runs in families, as some foot shapes are more prone to them
- Those who work in occupations that require long periods of standing, such as nurses, teachers, or cooks and servers in restaurants
- Pregnancy can also lead to bunions thanks to hormonal changes that can loosen the ligaments and flatten the arch (which is why insoles are helpful).
But, the most notable cause is likely due to wearing narrow shoes with pointed toes.
A tapered toe box forces the big toe joint (known medically as the first metatarsophalangeal joint, or MTP for short) into the space where the second toe belongs. Prolonged pressure causes the MTP to protrude outward and the big toe to point inward, sometimes crossing over or under the second toe, causing a hammertoe. Sometimes, the same issue occurs in the fifth metatarsal (pinky toe) causing a bunionette.Probably goes without saying, this is an example of pointy footwear and not ideal for running, ha! (image from Getty).
Is a bunion a bone growth?
Contrary to what most think, the bump that sticks out is not a bone growth, it is the first metatarsal bone pushing outward, while the big toe points toward the second toe.
Women are 10 times more likely than men to experience bunions, largely due to high heels. Heels over two inches tip our body weight forward, squishing the toes into the front of the shoe, creating the perfect situation for bunion formation.
Unfortunately, most shoes on the market, including running shoes, are designed with this tapered toe leaving many of us susceptible to bunions. YESSS this is why I’ve talked a lot about lower profile shoes, you don’t need to go barefoot, but start watching the heel drop they list in descriptions.
Up until two years old, babies’ shoes are designed to accommodate our natural foot shapes, in order to make balance for walking easier. After that, we begin to see the tapering of the toes in footwear.Image source
Notably, bunions (among other foot problems like plantar fasciitis and hammertoes) in barefoot societies are rare. So that whole barefoot running thing, maybe there’s something to it, after all…thought I’d much prefer you checkout a shoe like Altra.
Does Running make Bunions Worse?
Running is not directly to blame for causing bunions, rather they are caused by ill-fitting running shoes.
We often hear the terms “zero drop” or “2-mm drop” in relation to running shoes. What this refers to is the difference in height between the heel and the forefront of the shoe. Most running shoes are designed with elevated heels and and tapered toe box.
Mile after mile, particularly for long distance runners, this can lead to or exacerbate bunions.
Runners with bunions or those who wish to prevent the deformity, should look for properly-fitting shoes with the following features:
- A wide toe box that allows the toes to spread fully.
- A flexible sole, which helps strengthen the foot muscles opposed to a rigid sole that limits range of motion in the foot.
- Zero toe spring. Shoes have incorporated a toe spring that lifts the toes and overextends the plantar fascia. This is often the culprit for other foot problems such as shin splints, plantar fasciitis, neuromas, and more.
- A flat heel, which promotes proper alignment of the body.
Best Running Shoes for Bunions
Again, I’m not a doctor, however these are the shoes that came most highly recommended by them and by runners I know who deal with this issue.
Running shoes that fit the bill include:
- Altra Lone Peak 4 (trail)
- Altra Escalante 1.5 (road)
- Topo Terraventure 2 (trail)
- Inov-8 Roadclaw (road)
- Hoka Bondi (road)
- Saucony Guide 10 (road)
Bunion Pain Relief Home Remedies
Most assume that their only treatment are bunion surgeries, however those are really only recommended as a last resort, when the pain is impacting your daily life.
Recovery from surgical procedures can take anywhere from six months to a year, so if you’re a runner, that’s not exactly ideal. Often, the surgery doesn’t last, and the bunion returns once again.
The good news for those suffering from bunions is that there are plenty of at-home treatments that can help relieve pain and even correct the bunion in some cases.
Wear Appropriate Shoes
The first step is changing your shoes.
All of your shoes.
Not just your running shoes.
The brands listed above also design every day shoes, some even work-appropriate. There are plenty of companies who make shoes that accommodate the toes properly. Here’s a list of Correct Toes-approved shoes that others have compiled.
Wear Toe Spacers
You’ll need to build up your tolerance at first. Wearing them too long can cause painful leg cramps. Eventually, you’ll wear them throughout the day, so it’s important to find a shoe that accommodates your foot during use.
Alternatively, you can also wear a splint at night to help keep the toe in the correct position.
Moleskin and gel pads can help protect the bunion from rubbing against your shoe. Both are widely available in drugstores. You can also try shoe inserts designed to position the foot correctly and raise the arch.
Over the counter painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help temporarily alleviate the pain, however make sure you read all about how to use them safely. Take them pre-run can do all kinds of bad things to your liver.
Bunion Exercises and Massage
There are simple foot exercises and toe stretches you can do to help train the big toe to go back toward alignment and increase flexibility. Practiced every day, they can make a significant impact in the pain associated with bunions as well as slow the progression.
Jay Dicharry, director of Rep Lab in Bend, OR and author of Running Rewired suggests daily “toe yoga” to develop muscle coordination in the feet.
- With your feet flat on the floor, lift just your big toe and hold it in the air for one second.
- Lower the toe and lift the remaining four toes for one second.
- Alternate between the sets for 2 to 3 minutes on each foot.
Big Toe Stretches
With your foot flat on the floor, take your big toe with one hand and slide it away from the remaining toes into its natural alignment, while still keeping it on the ground. This stretches the muscle responsible for controlling the big toe, the adductor halas.
- While holding your toe out, massage this muscle by running your thumb down your foot between the first and second toe.
- You may find a trigger point, which indicates an area to pay more attention to during the massage.
- Hold the toe in this position for 10 seconds while massaging and repeat three to four times.
Take your hand or a resistance band and pull your big toe toward you while using your big toe to push against the resistance. Keep your feet either flat on the ground or flexed in front of you while sitting on the floor.
Place a towel on the ground and use your toes to scrunch the towel toward you. Repeat five times. A similar exercise is to pick up marbles or other small objects with your toes. Place 20 or so on the ground and pick them up one by one with your toes and place them in a bowl.
Get a textured foot massage ball and massage your feet for several minutes each day. Be sure to roll the ball along each metatarsal of the foot. This is an excellent exercise to stretch the muscles and relieve tension.
Are you a runner with bunions?
What recommendations do you have for fellow bunion sufferers?
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