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Orthotics for Bunions: How Insoles Can Relieve Bunion Pain

Babafemi Adebajo
By Babafemi Adebajo
Joel Taylor
Reviewed by Joel Taylor

Published February 28, 2022.

A doctor holding an orthopedic insert

Bunions, also known as hallux valgus, are a common foot issue across all ages and categories of people. When they occur, they can cause severe pain and hamper regular activities of daily living. Thus, bunions must be treated promptly using the right approach to avoid complications.

What Is a Bunion?

Bunions are bony lumps at the metatarsophalangeal joint near the base of the big toe. The lump is due to a malalignment of the joint, forcing the big toe against other toes.

The MTP plays a major role in weight-bearing and transfer, which is especially true when running or walking. When a bunion forms near the big toe, it won’t start with pain. However, as you subject it to more pressure and stress from your activities, the pain increases.

Generally, bunions develop on the big toe. When it develops on the little toe, it is called a tailor’s bunion or bunionette. They can also be classified based on severity and how much deformity has set in. The classification varies from normal to mild, moderate, and severe.

What Causes Bunions?

When the balance of the foot is affected, the big toe becomes unstable and bears more pressure. This causes the bunions to develop. Thus, we can say that bunions result directly from abnormal motion and faulty biomechanics.

Bunions are more prevalent in older women than in their male counterparts. Some have traced this to the preference of ladies for high heels. Apart from age and gender, familial history also plays a part. Other reasons you may develop bunions include

  • Biomechanical irregularities feet (e.g. low or fallen arches)
  • History of foot injury
  • Arthritis
  • Inflammatory joint diseases like gout
  • Repetitive stress on the foot (ballet dancers often develop bunions)
  • Use of Ill-fitting shoes or shoes with a narrow toe box
  • Neuromuscular disorders

Are There Non-invasive Treatments for Bunions?

Pain and discomfort are primary symptoms of the bunion and can be easily treated. However, the deformity itself can only be corrected with surgery. Otherwise, treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms. Treatment approaches include the use of ice, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), padding, taping, and custom orthotics.

Orthotics Are the Best Treatment

Custom orthotics are highly recommended in the management of bunions. Unlike OTC inserts which are not effective for bunions, research suggests custom orthotics will bring pain relief when used for bunion management.

Using your foot impressions, the Upstep experts will design a custom orthotic tailored to your foot. Generally, the custom orthotics help control any excessive movement, provide arch and metatarsal support, and realign the bones. Together, this reduces the pressure on the MTP of the big toe. Where the foot is more rigid or motion is more restricted, the orthotics may help re-distribute pressure over the heel to reduce the stress on the first MTP.

The most common type of custom orthotic is the shoe insert. Shoe inserts help by providing arch support and metatarsal support. Since the excessive movement of the medial arch can increase the pressure on the 1st MTP joint and symptoms, providing arch support reduces the excessive movement. Consequently, this can help improve the alignment and functioning of the MTP while relieving pain and preventing stiffness.

Likewise, using a metatarsal arch support reduces pressure on the joint, encouraging normal movement without contributing more tension to the other toes.

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How Important Is Your Footwear?

As useful as orthotics are in the management of bunions, it’s equally important to use them with the right footwear. Choosing the right footwear is crucial if pain relief is the goal as they work in combination with the insert to combat bunion pain and discomfort. The best type of shoe is the one with enough toe room. When making your choice, go for shoes that:

  1. Are made of a pliable material like leather to allow for widening and expansion.
  2. Have wide toe boxes. While cramped toes can increase your pain, space will relieve any pain and discomfort from the bunion.
  3. Are spacious enough to use the shoe insert without becoming uncomfortable.
  4. Are less than two inches tall. High-heeled shoes and pointed stilettos are not the best options as they place more stress on the MTP and do not provide adequate support for the arch.

When you combine a custom-fitted insert with the appropriate shoe, you’ll have taken a giant stride to halt the progression of the bunion deformity and to relieve any pain and discomfort it may have been causing. Of course, your quality of life will also improve.

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