A bunionectomy is a surgical procedure to excise, or remove, a bunion. A bunion is an enlargement of the joint at the base of the big toe and is comprised of bone and soft tissue. It is usually a result of inflammation and irritation from poorly fitting (narrow and tight) shoes.
A bunionectomy is performed when conservative means of addressing the problem, including properly fitting, wide-toed shoes, a padded cushion against the joint, orthotics, and anti-inflammatory medication, are unsuccessful. As the big toe moves sideways, it can push the second toe sideways as well. This can result in extreme deformity of the foot, and the patient may complain not only of significant pain, but of an inability to find shoes that fit.
Bunion formation can be hereditary, which means that if the individual's mother or father had the condition, he or she is at an increased risk of developing one as well. Bunions can also be a result of a congenital deformity, which means that the individual was born with an anatomical condition that made the development of a bunion more likely. Women are nine to 10 times more likely to develop bunions than men. The American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society reports a study estimating that about 88% of women wear shoes that are too small and that 55% have developed bunions. The condition may begin to form in adolescence. Other conditions that contribute to bunion formation include flat-footedness, a tight Achilles tendon, and rheumatoid arthritis. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the chance that significant deformity will be avoided.
Bunions become more common later in life. One reason is that with age the foot spreads and proper alignment is not maintained. In addition, the constant friction of poorly fitting shoes against the big toe joint creates a greater problem over time. Ignoring the problem in its early stages leads to a shifting gait that further aggravates the situation.
Once surgery has been decided on, the extent of the procedure will depend on the degree of deformity that has taken place. There are several different surgical techniques, mostly named after the surgeons who developed them, such as McBride, Chevron, and Keller. The degree and angle of deformity as well as the patient's age and physical condition play a significant role in the surgeon's choice of technique, which will determine how much tissue is removed and whether or not bone repositioning will occur. If bone repositioning is done, that part of the surgery is referred to as an osteotomy ( osteo means bone). The type of anesthesia, whether ankle block (the most common, in which the foot is numb but the patient is awake), general, or spinal, will depend on the patient's condition and the anticipated extent of the surgery. For surgery done on an ambulatory basis, the patient will usually be asked to arrive one to two hours before the surgery and stay for about two to three hours after the procedure. The procedure itself may take about an hour.
The surgeon will make an incision over the swollen area at the first joint of the big toe. The enlarged lump will be removed. The surgeon may need to reposition the alignment of the bones of the big toe. This may require more than one incision. The bone itself may need to be cut. If the joint surfaces have been damaged, the surgeon may hold the bones together with screws, wires, or metal plates. In severe cases, the entire joint may need to be removed and a joint replacement inserted. If pins were used to hold the bones in place during recovery, they will be removed a few weeks later. In some mild cases, it may be sufficient to repair the tendons and ligaments that are pulling the big toe out of alignment. When finished, the surgeon will close the incision with sutures and may apply steri-strips as an added reinforcement. A compression dressing will be wrapped around the surgical wound. This helps to keep the foot in alignment as well as help reduce postoperative swelling.
Recovery from a bunionectomy takes place both at the surgical center as well as in the patient's home. Immediate post-surgical care is provided in the surgical recovery area. The patient's foot will be monitored for bleeding and excessive swelling; some swelling is considered normal. The patient will need to stay for a few hours in the recovery area before being discharged. This allows time for the anesthesia to wear off. The patient will be monitored for nausea and vomiting, potential aftereffects of the anesthesia, and will be given something light to eat, such as crackers and juice or ginger ale, to see how the food is tolerated. Hospital policy usually requires that the patient have someone drive them home, as there is a safety concern after having undergone anesthesia. In addition, the patient will most likely be on pain medication that could cause drowsiness and impaired thinking.
It is important to contact the surgeon if any of the following occur after discharge from the surgical center:
• constant or increased pain at the surgical site
• redness and a warmth to the touch in the area around the dressing
• swelling in the calf above the operated foot
• the dressing has become wet and falls off
• the dressing is bloody
While the patient can expect to return to normal activities within six to eight weeks after the surgery, the foot is at increased risk for swelling for several months. When the patient can expect to bear weight on the operated foot will depend on the extent of the surgery. The milder the deformity, the less tissue is removed and the sooner the return to normal activity level. During the six to-eight-week recovery period, a special shoe, boot, or cast may be worn to accommodate the surgical bandage and to help provide stability to the foot.
All surgical procedures involve some degree of risk. The most likely problems to occur in a bunionectomy are infection, pain, nerve damage to the operated foot, and the possibility that the bunion will recur. Sharing all pertinent past and present medical history with the surgical team helps to lower the chance of a complication. In addition to the risk of the surgery itself, anesthesia also has risks. It is important to share with the anesthesia team the list of all the vitamins, herbs, and supplements, over-the-counter medications, and prescription medications that the patient is taking.