Are My Shoes Going to Give Me Bunions?

Feb 17, 2020

It’s an age-old question—and certainly, one that must run through your mind, at least once in a while, right before you slip your feet into a pair of stilettos:

Are my shoes going to give me bunions?

Or, maybe, you’ve already moved beyond that question and straight toward one of these:

Are my shoes responsible for the bunions I already have?

Are they going to keep making them worse?

They’re fair questions. We hear them at our office all the time, especially from women. (About 90 percent of all bunions develop in female feet.)

And while the news isn’t exactly all good, answering these questions completely is a little more complicated than you might think.

Bunions from shoes

The Role of Footwear in Bunion Formation

The truth is that it isn’t always possible to know with 100 percent certainty the exact causes of one bunion or another. What does seem to be the case is that the list of risk factors for bunions includes a mix of both “nature” and “nurture” components.

On the “nature” side of the spectrum, it’s very well established that bunions do tend to run in families. In other words, there seems to be a genetic component that influences how likely a person is to develop bunions or not.

For example, even when controlling for footwear choices, bunions tend to be more frequent in people with certain foot structures—such as those with flexible flat arches. If your mother or grandmother had bunions, you are probably at a higher than average risk.

That being said, shoes do seem to make a difference on the “nurture” side of the equation.

To be clear, whether wearing shoes like stilettos or pointy-toed pumps actually cause bunions is still a matter of debate within the podiatric community. Some podiatrists think you need to have a vulnerable foot structure first, while others disagree.

That being said, if you are susceptible to developing bunions, making poor choices with your footwear certainly seems to act as both a trigger and accelerator. Shoving your feet into those pumps day after day, week after week will only increase the destabilizing forces and stress on your joints and cause your bunion to get worse and worse, faster and faster.

Preventing Bunions with Better Shoe Choices

So now that you know that, yes, shoes are indeed an established risk factor for bunions, you need to know how to make smart choices to mitigate that risk.

Here are our suggestions.

Daily Wear

For your everyday shoes, you’re going to want a comfortable pair of walking shoes. What should you look for?

  • A proper fit. How many of us are guilty of buying a pair of shoes that don’t quite fit, just because of how cute they are? The temptation is real, we know. But don’t give in! Always measure your feet before buying (length and width), try on pairs, and walk around in them. They should be comfortable right away. Don’t justify a tight pair of shoes thinking that they’ll “break-in.”
  • Space for toes to wiggle. Shoes with pointy, compact toe boxes that scrunch your digits together are a major risk factor for bunions. You want your toes to be able to lay flat in their natural position, plus be able to wiggle up and down and left and right comfortably.
  • Good arch support and cushioning. Choose shoes that offer a solid base of support, including a soft and cushioned footbed with built-in arch support and a very slightly elevated heel. That should be good for most people unless you happen to need it…
  • Orthotics. If you have an abnormal foot shape or gait pattern, you might be putting excessive pressure on your big toe joint regardless of the style of shoes you wear. However, the right pair of orthotics from our office may be able to offset these factors, reducing your risk of developing bunions (or keeping the ones you already have from getting worse.)

As much as possible, avoid wearing shoes that shift weight toward the front of your feet (such as high heels), shoes that keep the toes pinched together, as well as flats (which offer no support for your arch).

What About Those Special Occasions?

We know that, for many of our female patients, “Don’t wear high heels” isn’t always the most useful advice. Maybe they’re required for your workplace, or you just enjoy wearing them from time to time.

While high heels are never really recommended, there are some steps you can take to at least minimize the risk that they’ll do long-term damage to your feet.

  • Wear them sparingly. Try to reserve those high heels for special occasions only. Avoid standing or walking in them for hours at a time, or many days in a row. If you do wear them out, bring along an extra pair of comfy shoes you can switch into before and after the event, or if your feet start to ache.
  • Limit heel height. The shorter your heels, the better—at least when it comes to keeping weight and pressure away from bones and joints that can develop bunions once destabilized. We recommend a maximum cap of 2 inches.
  • Give yourself a wide base of support. At a given heel height, a chunky wedge is going to be able to support a lot more of your weight comfortably than a spiky stiletto. The broader and wider, the better.
  • Get on the platform. In general, platforms (or at least heels with respectably thick, sturdy soles) are going to do a better job absorbing impact forces and keeping pressure away from the balls of your feet than heels with very thin soles.

All the other rules we mentioned in the everyday wear section apply, too. Find shoes that fit correctly. Try to find heels with a more generous toe box (easier said than done, we know). And yes, orthotics for high heels do exist! Just make sure there’s enough depth in your high heel to accommodate them without squishing your toes.

runner on a mountain trail

What If I Already Have Bunions?

If you already have bunions, switching to more comfortable, supportive footwear is still extremely important. While it may be too late to prevent the bunion from starting, you can still likely prevent it from progressing—or at least slow it down. Ultimately, that means you get a longer period of time to enjoy pain-free feet before needing to take the next treatment step.

Of course, we’ll also strongly recommend that you make an appointment with one of our foot specialists so we can make a more thorough evaluation of your feet and your bunions. Switching to better shoes is only one potential aspect of comprehensive bunion care.

In general, we will do everything we can to help you manage your bunion symptoms non-surgically. That said, if your bunion is severe and does need surgery, we are one of a small but growing number of practices nationwide offering the advanced Lapiplasty procedure. This approach to treating bunions has many advantages over conventional bunion surgeries, including shorter recovery times, less risk of infection or scarring, and less risk of the bunion coming back in the future.

But again, while we’re extremely proud of our ability to fix bunions surgically, it’s still better to avoid them in the first place—and for most, that means making smart decisions about what you put on your feet!

To schedule an appointment with the team at Comprehensive Foot Centers, give us a call today at (816) 455-1155 or fill out our online contact form. We have multiple locations in both Missouri and Kansas to serve you.