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Complete Guide to Bunion Surgery: Recovery Time and Care Tips

A bunion, also called hallux valgus, is a bony bump on the joint at the base of the big toe. Bunion surgery, medically known as a bunionectomy, becomes necessary when other treatments fail to ease the pain and discomfort caused by severe bunions. In this article, we’ll explore what bunion surgery is, the post-surgery recovery timeline, tips for recovery, and the role of physical therapy.

What is bunion surgery?

Bunion surgery aims to restore normal foot function and improve quality of life by realigning the bones, tendons, and ligaments. There are several types of bunion (hallux valgus) surgery, including traditional and minimally invasive techniques. Traditional surgery involves making a larger incision for toe realignment.

Minimally invasive techniques use smaller incisions and specialized instruments, leading to shorter surgery times, less time spent in the hospital, and better clinical outcomes. The choice of technique depends on the severity of the bunion and the surgeon's expertise.

Is bunion surgery painful?

Bunion surgery usually causes mild to moderate postoperative pain, but there are ways to manage pain effectively. Post-surgery pain varies depending on the person and the type of surgery performed.

Traditional surgeries may cause more discomfort due to larger incisions, while minimally invasive techniques are generally less painful. Pain management strategies, including medications and physical therapy, help ensure a more comfortable recovery process.

Bunion surgery recovery timeline

Recovery will differ from person to person but follows a general pattern. Here is what you’re likely to experience after your bunion surgery:

First 24 hours

Immediately after bunion surgery, you’ll be monitored in a recovery room. Pain and swelling are likely, and you'll be advised to keep your foot elevated. Ice therapy and prescribed pain medications help manage discomfort. You'll likely have a special surgical shoe to protect your foot.

First week

During the first week, focus on rest and minimal activity. Keep your foot elevated as much as possible. Follow your surgeon's post-op guidelines regarding bandage changes, stitches care, and surgical wound care. Attend your follow-up appointment (usually within the first or second week) to check your progress and address any concerns.

First month

In the first month, you'll begin gentle rehab exercises to maintain foot flexibility and strength. It’s important to do your physical therapy exercises as prescribed because physical therapy has been shown to improve pain and function after bunion surgery.

Swelling and bruising should gradually decrease, and you may transition to a more supportive shoe when advised by your doctor. Regular follow-up visits will ensure your recovery is on track.

3–6 months

The swelling continues to subside, and normal activities can be resumed gradually. Most people who undergo bunion surgery resume their usual activities in 6–12 weeks. Full recovery can take up to a year, and the greatest improvement takes place in the first six months following surgery.

Post-surgery care tips

After surgery, a consistent post-bunionectomy care routine can help with a smooth recovery. Follow your surgeon's instructions for changing dressings and cleaning the wound areas to prevent infection. Regular check-ups are important to monitor healing progress and identify complications or infection signs as soon as possible.

Elevating your operated foot can reduce swelling and pain. Apply ice packs several times a day for 15–20 minutes to manage pain and inflammation.

Use prescribed pain medications as directed to manage discomfort. Common medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), paracetamol, and occasionally opioids for severe pain.

Be aware of potential side effects, such as gastrointestinal issues from NSAIDs or constipation from opioids. Always discuss any adverse effects with your doctor, who will adjust treatment as needed​.

Physical therapy and rehabilitation

Physical therapy is vital in the recovery process after a bunionectomy and can ease discomfort, improve the way you walk, and increase comfort when wearing footwear. It can be useful immediately after surgery and in the following weeks or months to help you regain full use of your foot.

Treating and preventing bunions with exercise

Different exercises are prescribed for each phase of recovery from bunion surgery. Initially, gentle range-of-motion exercises help maintain flexibility and prevent stiffness. Strength-building exercises targeting your foot and ankle muscles are introduced as healing progresses.

These include toe curls, heel raises, and resistance band exercises. Balance exercises, such as standing on one leg and using balance boards, are used in the later stages to restore stability in your foot.

Research shows that strengthening exercises for older people with unoperated bunions improved their perceived foot health. Strengthening your foot involves exercises such as toe curls, toe spreads, and picking up small objects with your toes. Stretching exercises for the Achilles tendon and calf muscles improve flexibility, reducing stress on your forefoot.

In addition, avoiding excessively tight or heeled footwear can reduce your risk of developing bunions or worsening a bunion you already have. A physical therapist can create a personalized treatment plan for you, which usually includes exercises and advice on recovery footwear.

A successful recovery is more likely when you receive high-quality aftercare, attend follow-up appointments, and follow your surgeon’s instructions. Physical therapy and a consistent post-surgery routine can encourage proper healing and restore normal foot function, helping you return to full fitness as soon as possible.

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