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You can blame your genes—not your strappy heels—for those bumps living beside your big toe. “Most people think a bunion is a growth,” says Kimberly K. Hurley, DPM, a podiatrist and program director for the Podiatric Residency Program at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. “But it’s actually a hereditary deformity caused by structural issues in the foot.”
A bunion starts when the big toe leans toward the second toe, changing the angle of the bones. Pregnancy can make things worse by causing feet to become even wider. “The hormones that relax the pelvis for childbirth do the same to the ligaments in your feet,” explains Hurley.
Typically, a bunion progresses over time, though it’s not always painful. If a bunion is interfering with your daily routine, see a podiatrist. And if you experience mild to moderate pain, these tips will help:
Find comfy shoes. Look for a wide toe box and soft, stretchy material. “You don’t want anything that puts pressure on the bunion,” says A. Holly Johnson, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and foot and ankle specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “It’s mostly a case of trial and error to find what works best.”
Ditch the stilettos. High heels don’t cause bunions, but let’s be honest—they don’t feel awesome, either (and can sometimes feel like torture devices). “If you have to wear heels on a regular basis, stick with two inches or less,” says Hurley. Many shoe brands now make cute, wearable heels with athletic shoe foundations, so ask your podiatrist for recommendations.
Wear bunion pads or spacers. Moleskin or silicone products will give you the cushioning you need inside shoes, says Johnson.
Look into orthotics. “They won’t stop bunions from progressing, but orthotics help support the muscles and tendons that aren’t in alignment,” says Hurley. Over-the-counter brands such as Superfeet and Powersteps are alternatives if your insurance doesn’t cover prescription orthotics.
Try anti-inflammatory meds. Ibuprofen or naproxen can reduce pain and inflammation. Topical creams with ingredients such as capsaicin may also help.
Give your feet some TLC. Apply heat before physical activities like walking or exercising. Try an ice pack if you’ve been on your feet all day.
Talk to a doctor. If pain is interfering with your day-to-day, you may be a candidate for surgery. Surgery is only recommended if you’re in pain and not for cosmetic reasons. There are many surgical options, but typically the bone is repositioned and secured with screws. Be warned, it’s not a quick fix: Recovery takes six to 16 weeks with no weight-bearing for at least two. The upside is most women find lasting relief, says Hurley.
Arrica Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.