Bunion: Strengthening Foot Muscles to Reduce Pain and Improve Mobility

August 12, 2020
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A bunion is painful swelling that develops on the first joint at the base of the big toe, causing it to lean inwards and push against the other toes. Though genetics as well as foot shape and structure play a role in the development of bunions, repeated squeezing of the foot into narrow and pointed footwear may cause or exacerbate the condition (Ioli). Bunions affect more than 65 million Americans and approximately 35% of women over the age of 65 (“Bunion: Strengthening”). 

Because a bunion develops at a crucial junction of bones, tendons, and ligaments, it can have serious implications on the foot’s functioning and cause great discomfort. This discourages physical activity and leads to sedentary habits, harming overall health. Though bunions can be removed surgically in severe cases to reduce pain and improve walking ability, surgery can lead to infection, nerve damage, and other complications, and full recovery may take up to six months (“Bunion Surgery”). Furthermore, 15% of bunions have been found to return after surgery (“Bunion: Strengthening”).  

At any stage, it is important to seek treatment if the pain caused by bunions interferes with daily routine and exercise. Wearing the right kind of shoe—one with a wide, flexible sole and ample room in the toe box—is the first step to relieving pressure and alleviating pain (Ioli). Athletic sneakers, sandals, and clogs are appropriate options. Gel-filled pads and inserts can also be placed in the shoe to protect the bunion, alleviate pressure on the joint, and/or position the foot correctly (“7 Ways”). 

Because weak muscles may also contribute to bunion-related pain, strengthening key foot and calf muscles often lessens pain and improves movement. Three simple exercises can be performed on a regular (preferably daily) basis to reinforce the muscles in order to help support body weight and prevent the arch of the foot from rolling inward, thereby reducing bunion-related pain and its impact on movement. However, it is important to note that while strengthening exercises may help decrease pain and improve mobility, they likely will not alter the appearance of the bunion (“Bunion: Strengthening”).  

The exercises are described as follows: 

(A) Towel grip and pull: place a towel on the ground below your foot, and use your toes to scrunch the towel towards you while keeping your heel on the ground.  

(B) Toe-spread-out: with your heel and the front of your foot fixed to the ground, lift and spread your toes. While your toes are spread out, push your little toe down to the floor, and then do the same with the big toe down.  

(C) Heel-raises: standing with your knees bent, raise your heel(s) off the floor while keeping pressure on your big toe.  

All exercises should be performed barefoot, progressing from a seated position, to a standing position on both feet, and finally to a standing position on one leg (“Bunion: Strengthening”). Each exercise should be repeated 10 to 20 times, with each repetition held for five seconds. 

Other simple ways to massage and strengthen the foot and toe muscles include rolling a tennis ball underneath each foot or walking barefoot on the beach (Lindberg). In addition to foot-strengthening exercises, hip- and leg-strengthening movements may also be performed to improve stability. Consult with your doctor or physical therapist before attempting any new exercise. 

References 

“7 Ways to Ease Bunion Pain Without Surgery.” Health Essentials, Cleveland Clinic, 11 Oct. 2019, health.clevelandclinic.org/7-ways-to-ease-your-bunions-without-surgery/

“Bunion: Strengthening Foot Muscles to Reduce Pain and Improve Mobility.” The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy vol. 46,7 (2016): 606. doi:10.2519/jospt.2016.0504

“Bunion Surgery.” Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/bunion-surgery

Ioli, James. “What to Do about Bunions.” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, June 2011, www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/what-to-do-about-bunions

Lindberg, Sara. “10 Bunion Exercises for Pain Relief and Prevention.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 9 July 2019, www.healthline.com/health/bunion-exercises