Bunion Surgery – A Painful Choice

Deciding to have bunion surgery can be one of the most difficult health decisions to make. ‘Bunions’ are a cause of distress to many thousands of people -mostly women -worldwide. Last year, I wrote about bunions and my opinion was and still is – “avoid bunion surgery if at possible, unless it is ruining your life and crippling you with pain”.

The ‘bunion’ referred to here is the bony deformity characterized by a big toe that deviates towards the rest of the toes, possibly accompanied by a second toe which is bent and overlies it.

When any surgical intervention is considered, be it the podiatrist enucleating a corn, removing part of a toe-nail or the orthopaedic surgeon realigning the foot in bunion surgery, all of us strive to do our best to achieve a satisfactory outcome, by exercising our skills to the utmost.

So you can imagine my concern to have two patients recently complaining bitterly about their unhappiness with the result of their bunion surgery. Add to this my surprise at the ‘twenty-something’ who wants surgery because she doesn’t like the look of her feet and her bunion (this one is the small thickening of the metatarsal bone with no deformity), prevents her from wearing the high fashion shoes she needs for work.

What can you say to a middle-aged, active woman who decided to have her bunion (deformed type) corrected, but after three months can only wear trainers with the toe cut out, has a swollen foot, pain and discomfort, difficulty driving, plus all the associated emotional stress? Or how do you respond to a similar woman who is now in constant pain and has had altered her walking style because the foot is rigid at the big toe joint?

To the best of my knowledge the procedures were technically successful and there is no deformity anymore. In addition we all react differently to a surgical “assault” and time does allow better healing. Also, there are numerous variations of operations and techniques available for bunion correction surgery.

Firstly – go back to the surgeon and discuss your options.
Secondly – see if a podiatrist can assist with biomechanical correction or alignment and footwear advice.

With my 2 patients, one has had orthotics made and the other I referred to the surgeon, who has recommended further physiotherapy, with the possibility of another operation to remove the steel plate that is in the foot.

I will still refer patients who meet my criteria outlined above for consideration for surgery, because the final decision to undergo sugery is always taken by the patient. Unfortunately, there can be no absolute guarantees since the structure of each foot is so complicated.

So what to do about ‘bunions’? Is there an underlying systemic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis?

We must consider the patient’s age. Is the patient overweight? What is the biomechanical structure and function, not only of the feet but lower limbs and body? Have all possible conservative measures such as night splints, orthotics, insoles, appropriate footwear, been exhausted?

Be guided by the severity of loss of function, pain, discomfort and limitation of daily activities. Will the patient be able to adhere to all the post-operative requirements, expected by the surgeon?

Eventually, all these factors (plus others), must be seriously thought about before undergoing bunion surgery.

Andrew

Andrew has taught at the University as well as providing podiatry services in South Africa since 1977. Twice chair of the Podiatry Association of South Africa and a commentator on care of your feet on both radio and television he now works in private practice in Cape Town and Hout Bay.

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susan traub - May 5, 2009 Reply

Hi,

I used to run daily about 15 kms. Have bunions on both feet – the one being progresivly worse. Have seen a few orthaepedic surgeons. They all suggest surgery. The one surgeon Dr Saragas – was prepared to do both my feet and not straightening all my toes.
The last surgeon I saw Dr Ferreira in Pretoria -advises severe arthritis in big toe joint and all toes need to be straightened. Only the last few months has my running being affected. My foot (because the joint does not work anymore) is very sore under the arch. I am in such a quandry whether to have the op. Do you think I will ever run again. Apart from being in a cast for 3 months – my biggest concern is the running.

I am sure you are not able to comment without seeing my foot. It is bad – besides the big toe, the second toe is a hammer toe and the others are curling downwards.