Yoga as Bunion Buster?
A friend, knowing that I teach yoga and write about health, e-mailed me the other day with this question: "Somebody told me that there is a yoga exercise that will actually reverse the progress of a bunion. You put the affected foot up against a slant board and stretch out the other leg ... ever hear of this?"
I hadn't. But I promised to look into it. It's just the kind of issue that exists in that intriguing interface between mainstream medicine and alternative practices -- where prejudices on both sides often get in the way of good thinking.
I started by checking the index of one of my favorite health books, Timothy McCall's Yoga as Medicine. McCall, an M.D., is the medical editor of Yoga Journal magazine, and his book makes an excellent case for yoga's capacity to help keep people healthy.
Alas, the book doesn't cover bunions.
So I called Dr. McCall. He wasn't familiar with the yoga pose my friend described. He had heard of a different move that might help spread the toes and metatarsals, which could eventually make a bunion stop getting worse, at least. (In brief: stand with feet side by side, a few inches apart. Step forward about 6 inches with the afflicted foot. Turn the foot at an angle so the big toe is pointing inward. Keeping the toe in that position and the ball down, rotate the heel inward and lower it down.)
McCall says he has heard of a woman who had had a progressive bunion whose progress stopped after she practiced a certain yoga exercise, but he wasn't sure what that exercise was. Ultimately, he says, because bunions are primarily a bone problem, "I don't know that you can correct it fully" through yoga.
"Once bones become altered, that wouldn't be very easy to change" with yoga's stretches and strength-building moves, he says. On the other hand, though, "spreading the toes and metatarsals, creating space, perhaps could undo some of the damage" done by wearing too-tight shoes, which can exacerbate, but not cause, bunions. (The tendency toward bunions appears to be hereditary.)
On a more general note, McCall observes that "People want to apply yoga in a quick-fix way. But to help with most chronic conditions, you need to establish a pattern of regular practice over the long term."
Back to bunions. In Western medicine, once a bunion is identified as such, treatment is aimed at relieving pain and taking steps (such as altering the kind of shoes you wear) to keep it from getting worse. If it causes a lot of pain, surgery may be in order.
Ultimately, McCall says, "If you have a bunion and you do yoga almost every day for the next several years, you will certainly feel better. But I don't think your bunion will be fixed."
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