A guide to bunion (Hallux Valgus) surgery

What is a bunion?

A bunion is a bony deformity affecting the main joint of the big toe. The medical term for a bunion is called hallux valgus. It is caused when the big toe tilts towards the second toe. The big toe position can worsen over time. Bunions are a common problem. They tend to run in families and are more frequent in women.

An operation is only recommended as a last resort, once all non-operative treatment measures for your bunion have been exhausted, and if your symptoms remain significant. Bunion surgery is not recommended for cosmetic reasons or to avoid problems that are not yet present.

What happens during bunion surgery?

In most cases the operation is performed under general anaesthetic (whilst you are asleep). Alternatively, you can have a spinal or regional anaesthetic, which just numbs the leg.

A surgical cut is made on the inside of your foot over the bunion. The bump is removed and the long bone in the big toe (metatarsal) is cut with a small saw. The big toe can then be repositioned straight and held with screws to allow the bone to heal back together. If further straightening is required, another bone in the big toe (proximal phalanx) can also be cut, repositioned and held with a screw or staple.

Once the operation is completed the wound is closed with stitches, local anaesthetic is given to provide pain relief for the first few hours after surgery, then a bulky bandage along with a surgical sandal is applied.

What are the risks of bunion surgery?

The risks of any operation generally relate to the anaesthetic and the surgical procedure.

You will be able to discuss your anaesthetic options and associated risks with the anaesthetist before your surgery. With a general anaesthetic, the risks will vary depending on your general health.

The main surgical risks of bunion surgery are listed below, but it is not exhaustive. These will be further explained in the outpatient clinic.

Swelling – The foot will swell after surgery in response to the surgery itself and the healing process. It will take more than six months for the swelling to settle.

Stiffness – The big toe usually remains stiffer than before surgery. For most people this is not a problem, however it can be an issue for athletes and dancers. This is often improved with physiotherapy once the bones in your big toe have healed.

Non-union – There is a risk the bones in your big toe that were cut will not heal back together. Patients who smoke are at a much higher risk of this complication. We will therefore ask you to stop smoking (including nicotine vapes) before surgery and while your big toe is healing. We can direct you to services that can help with smoking cessation.

Change of position – In some people the big toe gradually tilts back to the original position or more rarely the toe can tilt the other way. If the position of the big toe becomes problematic some patients may consider further surgery to adjust this.

Pain – Some patients may experience pain under the second toe (metatarsalgia), due to weight transfer changes after bunion surgery. Careful surgical technique can reduce this risk, but it cannot be completely avoided. This may require further surgery in the future.

Prominent metalwork – If the metalwork in your foot becomes a problem, you can have another operation to remove it. After six months the bones in your big toe will have solidly healed for the metalwork to be removed.

Nerve injury – With an operation there is always a small risk of injuring or stretching the surrounding nerves, which can lead to numbness. These symptoms mostly resolve in time, but they can persist.

Infection – The wound usually heals within two weeks. In a small number of cases the wounds become infected. The majority are minor infections that can be simply treated with antibiotics. Occasionally, some patients can develop a deeper infection that might require another operation.

Should you develop redness around the wound then please contact us.

Blood clots (leg or lung) – There is small risk of developing a blood clot after foot surgery. Measures are taken to reduce the chance of this happening but cannot be completely avoided.

Chronic regional pain syndrome – Following foot and ankle surgery a small proportion of patients can develop chronic regional pain syndrome. Your foot becomes indefinitely painful, swollen and sensitive. If you develop this, you may require specialist care from a pain consultant.

What happens after my operation?

When will I go home after surgery?

You will go home on the same day as the surgery.

Can I walk on the foot?

After the operation you can fully weight bear through the operated leg. Before you go home, the physiotherapist will make sure you are safe to get around and give yoou crutches if necessary. It is important to wear the surgical sandal continuously for six weeks to protect the operated area.

In the first few weeks keep your leg elevated ‘toes above your nose’ as much as possible to help reduce the swelling and aid wound healing. It is important that your bandage remans dry and you may find using a waterproof cover helpful (www.limboproducts.com).

When will I be followed-up in clinic?

You will be seen two weeks after surgery in the outpatient clinic. Your wound will be checked, the stitches removed. You are required to wear the surgical sandal continuously for a further four weeks.

You will then be seen six weeks after surgery with an X-ray to confirm the bones in your big toe are healing. If everything is progressing well, you will then start wearing your own footwear. A soft trainer is best.  Further appointments will depend on your individual progress.

When can I go back to work?

If you have a sedentary job (desk based) and are able to elevate your foot, you can return to return to work two weeks after surgery. If you have a more physically strenuous job, you may need longer off work.

When can I drive?

You can start driving when you are comfortably walking in your own footwear. If you cannot safely make an emergency stop, your insurance will not cover you in the event of an accident. Start by sitting in the car and trying the pedals, then drive round the block. Drive short distances before long ones. If you are having surgery on your left leg and drive an automatic car, you could consider returning to driving sooner, but only if you are safe to do so.

When can I return to full activity levels?

It varies how quickly people can take up exercise again. You should though avoid high impact exercises for 12 weeks and then return gradually to full activity levels as your comfort levels allow.

When can I fly after surgery?

If you are flying after recent surgery you are at an increased risk of developing a blood clot in one of the deep veins in your body, usually the leg (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). Please ask your surgeon for individual guidance on how long to delay flying after your surgery. Also, each airline has its own regulations about flying after surgery and you will need to check with your airline before flying.

Wellbeing advice

Patients that have a healthy diet, take regular exercise and refrain from smoking are more likely to experience a quicker recovery with a more successful outcome from their surgery.

Taking vitamin C supplements for six weeks before surgery and six weeks after surgery can also be beneficial. You can purchase them from your local pharmacy or supermarket.

If you have any concerns about your general health and well-being (diet, exercise, smoking cessation) you are encouraged to discuss this with your GP, who will be able to provide advice on the options available to you.

We hope this leaflet has answered any questions you might have. If you have any further queries, please feel free to discuss them with any of the medical or nursing staff.

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