By Dr. Ray McClanahan

In spite of the fact that the medical community has made advances in the care of many common medical conditions, the treatment of bunion deformity is still locked in the dark ages.

Today’s podiatric students and residents are being taught that bunions are hereditary, represent a bone structure problem, and require surgery for definitive treatment. They are being taught that the progression of bunions can be slowed by supporting the arch (subtalar joint) with orthotic devices. They are encouraged to recommend wide width footwear to their future patients, which does not fix the problem, as you will see below.

This perspective represents the current standard of care in podiatric education and practice, but is it based in evidence?

The short answer is no.

There are several clues as well as self-evident medical facts, that point to the flaws in the presently accepted educational approach and treatment of bunion deformity.

Humans are not born with bunions. In all but the exceedingly rare case, human babies are born with toes that spread wider than the balls of their feet. We even seem to respect this anatomical reality by manufacturing footwear for babies that are the same shape as their natural feet. However, around the age of 3, we begin changing the shape of the feet of infants by fitting them in footwear that no longer respects natural human foot anatomy, and we start squeezing their toes together. We begin fitting them in shoes that are widest at the balls of their feet, as opposed to where natural feet are widest: at the ends of the toes. This is where bunion deformity begins.

Throughout the lives of most humans in shoe wearing societies, they will continue to purchase footwear that is widest at the balls of the feet and gets narrower in the toebox. Consequently, their feet will become shaped like their shoes. This happens because most footwear available to them is manufactured this way, and the current system for measuring feet, the Brannock device, gives feet their width measurement at the ball of the foot. Nearly everyone’s feet have become misshaped by their shoes early in life, so we fail to recognize that there is nothing natural about the shape of our feet. We have created a new normal, not without significant negative consequences, which eventually show up as pain and disability.

A group of researchers from Harvard recently published an article on the “Framingham Foot Study” in Arthritis Care & Research where they concluded that bunions are highly hereditable. The problem with their conclusion is that they failed to control for the footwear that their research subjects were wearing, and had worn over their entire lives. Employing the same reasoning that they used to arrive at their conclusion, we could conclude that long necks are highly hereditable in females in Bangladesh who wear rings on their necks, or that cone shaped skulls are highly hereditable in the African tribes who tightly bandage the skulls of their newborns to create a cone shaped head.

We are not observing correlation here. We are clearly identifying causation. Brass rings cause long necks. Tight bandaging of the skull at birth causes long heads. Shoes that progressively dislocate the big toes, over the course of a lifetime, cause bunions in nearly all cases.

If the researchers at Harvard would have looked at the footwear their subjects wore throughout their life, they would see that what is hereditable is feet that are wider than most of the footwear those individuals have worn over the course of their lives. We check this on every patient that comes in to our clinic by using the shoe liner test, and what we’ve seen is that nearly 100% of patients with bunions have feet that are wider than their footwear. We tell them that their shoes are narrower than their feet, and they confirm they have always struggled to find shoes for their “wide feet”.

Another hereditable feature that plays into the development of bunion deformity is soft tissue elasticity. This renders some feet the ability to return to their natural foot shape after removing tapered toebox footwear and other feet to more quickly take on the unnatural shape of the footwear permanently.

Watch our Hereditary Bunion Myth video here.

To summarize – bunions are non-hereditable, preventable and reversible progressive dislocations of the big toe joint, caused by the tapering toebox of footwear. They do not represent a bone structure problem, a growth of bone, nor a calcium deposit. They are also not fixed with surgery, nor are they slowed by arch supports or orthotics. They are, in fact, prone to continued symptoms, reoccurrence and failure when these methods are applied without the new, scientifically credible method of bunion prevention and reversal I will outline in parts 2 and 3 of this article. This new method is natural, successful, cost effective, and avoids many of the known risks inherent to the commonly accepted methodology.

Dr. Ray McClanahan
Dr. Ray McClanahan is a podiatric physician with over 15 years experience in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in sports medicine and preventative foot care. Dr McClanahan completed his undergraduate studies at Liberty University earning a B.S. in Education. He then attended Temple University’s School of Podiatric Medicine and graduated in 1995. He went on to complete a two year podiatric surgical residency training in Portland at Legacy Health Systems as well as Kaiser Permanente as a Podiatric Physician and Surgeon.