What is a Bunion?

A bunion in its most base and simplistic definition is simply a bump. When it comes to foot ailments, there are many interesting and colorful names and descriptions. From corns to hammer toes, none of them sound all that pleasant or physically appealing. Bunions are no different.

It gets a bit more complicated when speaking of foot bunions because there are many different ways to categorize them depending on the context of the conversation.

Some people speak of bunions in terms of location on the body or foot and some speak about them in respect to their size or pain.

A bunion, or the bump, is referred to as a Hallux Valgus in medical literature.

Hallux, refers to the big toes. Therefore, whenever you see medical literature using the term Hallux in some manner (e.g. Hallux Valgus, Hallux Limitus or Hallux Rigidus) they are referring to some condition or state of the big toe on your foot.

Valgus means middle or midline. Imagine the space between your big toe (hallux) and your second toe…or better yet, take your shoes and socks off and look at it. You should be able to roughly draw a straight line between the two with space on either side of this imaginary line.  That line is essentially your “midline”. When your big toe bends or angles itself toward your second toe and crosses that line you are suffering from “Hallux Valgus”.

As this condition worsens, the joint area where your foot and metatarsal (i.e. the first and largest bone in your big toe) meet will expand outward and cause a bump which will increase in size as time goes on. Additionally, you may even see instances where the big toe not only angles in toward the second toe, but a rotation of sorts so that the inner right side of the big toe (on the right foot) and the inner left side of the toe (on the left foot) start to point toward the sky.

The most common and likely reason you might develop a bunion is due to a biomechanical flaw in your foot structure. Do not believe the myths that bunions are caused by footwear (though there are some exceptions to this rule) or too much calcium in your body or other such nonsense.

This biomechanical flaw may be partly attributable to genetics, birth defects, bone growth and development during your youth or from trauma or injury.

Types of Bunions

Believe it or not, bunions can occur on any of your toes but is far more likely to develop on the big toe or joint area since that is a weight bearing structure where most of the stress from walking is concentrated.

Though there are different types of bunions, they all are generally the result of friction that occurs in the joints of toes. The constant moving and flexing with the interaction of bones, cartilage and fluid will form the bunion if your body is not working properly.

Your joints are filled with cartilage and fluid contained in a bursa sac. The bursa sac acts as a cushion or lubricant between the bones and cartilage. If this cushioning sac of fluid becomes inflamed, also known as bursitis, that is when the pain will start to manifest itself.

Not all bunions hurt. So, just because you are not experiencing any pain it does not mean you do not have a bunion. You just happen to be fortunate and probably should seek aggressive treatment so that the problem does not worsen.

Bunion Location

On your big toe you will often see bunions arise in two prominent locations. The most well-known and likely location is the outer big toe joint area we discussed above. But, there are two other lesser well-known spots.

Dorsal Bunions

You may have heard the term “dorsal” used in an entirely different context. If you have studied marine biology or various oceanic creatures you will have undoubtedly heard the term “dorsal fin”. This is the fin that sits on the top of a shark, dolphin and killer whales.

A dorsal bunion is a bunion that forms on top of your toes.

When your metatarsal bone in the big toe (or any other toe for that matter) aggressively rubs or grinds against the next bone in the toe, the joint gets inflamed and the area forms a bunion in response.


A bunionette, also known as a Tailor’s Bunion, is a bunion that occurs on the outer pinky toe. This condition overwhelmingly impacts women since the primary cause of a bunionette is the wearing of heels or shoes that constrict the toe area.

Bunions Categorized by Pain Level

A normal, run-of-the-mill bunion absent of any pain is generically referred to as Hallux Valgus. Or obviously, just simply referred to as a bunion.

However, doctors and medical professionals will sometimes refer to bunions accompanied by sharp, recurring pain as an “acute bunion”.

When attempting to remember what a bunion is, just remember that a bunion simply means a “bump”. There can be different causes of these bumps and that will often determine where the bunion is located.  Some bunions will hurt and many times they will not have any pain at all.

All bunions will require surgery if you do not take steps to treat the problem.