Bunion Pain Exercises and Tips from Physical Therapists

Many people with bunions never experience discomfort but if the bony bump on your big toe causes you pain, these bunion exercises can help.

Published Date: Mar 26, 2024
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If you have a bunion — a bony bump that develops on the inside of your foot at the big toe joint — you may not like how it makes your feet look. For many people, a bunion isn't a source of pain or foot problems, at least at first. However, sometimes bunions can take a turn for the uncomfortable. 

A bunion is a bony prominence that forms on the inner aspect of the foot, where the big toe meets the rest of the foot. Such bumps are not isolated bony formations, but are actually associated with a condition known as hallux valgus. In hallux valgus, the big toe drifts in the direction of the smaller toes. They’re incredibly common: Almost a quarter of all adults under the age of 65, and about a third older than that, develop them.

If your bunion does become painful, you may experience tenderness at the site and it could impact how you walk, says Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. While a bunion won’t go away on its own (that would require surgery), there is a lot you can do to ease the pain, she adds. 

Read on to learn more about bunions, plus how to treat any related pain with foot and bunion exercises and bunion stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kemp is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in fall prevention, post-operative orthopedic recovery, neurological rehabilitation, and movement optimism.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

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What Causes Bunions?

Bunions are more common in women. As a result, women have been told for a long time that their pointy shoes or high heels (or both) were solely to blame. But recent research suggests many other factors play a role. The landmark Framingham Foot Study, which followed 1,370 people in their 50s and 60s for six years, concluded that about two-thirds of bunion cases are genetic. Bunions were also more frequent among Caucasian men and in women of European descent. “Oftentimes, bunions are caused or worsened by a structural foot issue like flat feet, which could be inherited,” says Dr. Kemp.

Bunions do worsen over time. If a bunion gets big enough, it can force your other toes out of alignment and even cause other toe deformities, like hammer toes. You may also develop corns and calluses, which can be even more uncomfortable. 

The good news: While it’s hard to reverse bunions, you can manage the associated symptoms through simple lifestyle measures, says Dr. Kemp. 

How to Relieve Bunion Pain: A Hinge Health Perspective

Exercise is an important part of bunion pain treatment. “Many people shy away from exercise because they think it will make their bunions worse, but it actually can help with the associated symptoms,” says Dr. Kemp.

Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT
Exercise can’t get rid of a bunion, but it can help to decrease gait impairment, and strengthen the muscles of your feet, ankles, and legs. This, in turn, will make it easier to move.

Gentle movements, specific stretches, and strengthening exercises can help to manage bunions (more on that below). And, as research shows, it will pay off: A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association found that women who did a foot and toe stretching and strengthening regime for three months showed significant improvements in pain and range of motion compared to those who didn’t.

Regular aerobic activity, and overall resistance training is also important. “When we consistently provide input to our joints, and increase our muscle strength and endurance, these all desensitize us to irritation and pain, including any pain caused by the bunion,” explains Dr. Kemp.

So, while a bunion might make you more hesitant to move, listen to your body. If you’re able to run or do a brisk walk with minimal to manageable discomfort, continue doing so, reassures Dr. Kemp. But if it hurts a lot, temporarily switching to low-impact or no-impact activities such as swimming can decrease the stress on your foot until the muscles are strong enough to resume those activities.

More Tips for Bunion Pain Relief

While exercise should be the cornerstone of your recovery plan, the following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can also provide relief for bunion pain:

  • Change up your shoes. There’s no such thing as the perfect shoe that works for everyone, but if you have bunions, look for shoes that have low heels and a wide toe box. Narrow, pointy shoes may look great on your feet, but they can squeeze bunions and cause more pain.

  • Add padding. Over-the-counter silicone pads can be placed inside your shoe to cushion the painful spot over the bunion. Just test them out for a short period first to make sure you have the right size. If the pads are too big, they can increase pressure on the bump and make things worse.

  • Consider orthotics. You can try an over-the-counter shoe insert, or orthotic, especially if you have another structural foot issue such as flat feet. A 2021 review in the journal BMJ Open found that orthotics were helpful when it came to relieving bunion pain, especially if they were used with toe spacers (which are placed between the toes).

  • Sleep with night splints. These place your big toe in a straight position, which may relieve pain. A 2018 study in Prosthetics and Orthotics International found that when study subjects used a night splint for six hours at night for 12 months, they reported significantly reduced pain compared to those who didn’t wear one to bed.

Bunion Exercises for Pain Relief

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Toe Yoga
  • Active Toe Abduction
  • Calf Raises
  • Active Toe Extension
  • Standing Calf Stretch
  • Hamstring Stretch

These bunion exercises and stretches are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to strengthen and stretch all the muscles that support the leg, foot, and toes. “People often think that there’s nothing they can do if they have a bunion, but I’ve seen over and over in my practice that exercise can help people cope very well with a bunion,” says Dr. Kemp.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Analyze Your Gait

If your bunions are causing you pain, it may be worth it to meet with a physical therapist to undergo a gait analysis, says Dr. Kemp. “Many people, when they walk or run, push off the side of their foot, versus pushing forward, which can exacerbate bunions,” she explains. A PT can work with you to help you practice moving from the ball of your foot to pushing off your toes.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  1. Ferrari, J. July 13, 2021. Hallux Valgus Deformity (Bunion) in Adults. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hallux-valgus-deformity-bunion-in-adults 

  2. Hannan, M. T., Menz, H. B., Jordan, J. M., Cupples, L. A., Cheng, C.-H., & Hsu, Y.-H. (2013). High Heritability of Hallux Valgus and Lesser Toe Deformities in Adult Men and Women. Arthritis Care & Research, 65(9), 1515–1521. doi:10.1002/acr.22040

  3. Abdalbary, S. A. (2018). Foot Mobilization and Exercise Program Combined with Toe Separator Improves Outcomes in Women with Moderate Hallux Valgus at 1-Year Follow-up. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 108(6), 478–486. doi:10.7547/17-026

  4. Kwan, M.-Y., Yick, K.-L., Yip, J., & Tse, C.-Y. (2021). Hallux valgus orthosis characteristics and effectiveness: a systematic review with meta-analysis. BMJ Open, 11(8), e047273. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047273

  5. Chadchavalpanichaya, N., Prakotmongkol, V., Polhan, N., Rayothee, P., & Seng-Iad, S. (2018). Effectiveness of the custom-mold room temperature vulcanizing silicone toe separator on hallux valgus: A prospective, randomized single-blinded controlled trial. Prosthetics and Orthotics International, 42(2), 163–170. doi:10.1177/0309364617698518