My Journey: Decision Day to Back on the Court
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you have a bunion. Because, let’s face it, why ELSE would you read this article. They’re ugly, painful, and boring, and if you have one, you know how much it negatively impacts your life. For me, my bunion became worse over time and led me to consider ways to ease the pain.
Although I wasn’t in terrible pain, it was becoming more and more bothersome. Sometimes, I felt twinges of pain at night after playing tennis, and thinking about it getting worse was terrifying for someone who loves the sport as much as I do.
I was surprised when my doctor sat me down to explain why orthotics weren’t going to cut it. After reviewing my x-rays, his recommendation was that I undergo surgery as soon as possible in order to correct my problem while my cartilage was still in decent condition.
I remember feeling deflated as he explained in great detail why surgery was the best option. And even more detail about the surgery itself. Guess what folks—they cut your toe bone in HALF. My immediate reaction was “nope, no way” you’re not doing that to my foot. Plus, it would require me to take time off the courts, and I just didn’t want to do that. As an athlete, I’ve experienced injuries before, and taking time off to heal is agonizing. As you probably know, when a sport is part of your heart and soul, even a short time away feels like an eternity.
My doctor approached the issue with clinical detachment. As he discussed the procedure, post-op care, and various things I would need to watch for, I had trouble focusing because all that was on my mind was the burning question, “how long until I can get back on the court?”. And really, you're cutting it in HALF?
He told me I'd be able to go out and "hit" after six weeks and play a match after eight weeks. As a tennis player, I didn’t fully understand why those very similar activities would affect my foot differently, but I forgot about my confusion when he told me that it would be at least 8-12 months until I was fully recovered. At that point, complete and total panic set in because I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait eight months for full recovery. I needed to really understand what each phase of the next six weeks to a year would look like in practical terms.
And I still struggled with understanding why, if I would be able to “hit” after just six weeks, full recovery would still be at least another half year away.
It didn’t make sense to me, and nobody was able to give me an answer that cleared it up. Even my friends who've had bunion surgery couldn't really explain how it affected them on the court—they couldn’t remember when they were able to get back on the court or explain at what point they felt like they were playing completely normally again. No matter how many different ways I asked the question, nobody could truly give me the understanding I needed.
While I didn’t get a straightforward answer to that question, I did find out that bones take six weeks to heal, so after my surgery, I decided I would give my foot six weeks, and then I would go for it and hope for the best.
But in the meantime, why not work on improving my serve?
I had a simple plan to follow, but of course, things don’t always go according to plan. I had to accept the difficult lesson of not only listening to my body but also giving myself a bit of forgiveness as I learned what worked for me.
I know there are many others like me out there. I hope that by sharing my story, it may ease your worries and help your healing process if you do end up going the surgery route.
NOTE: This article is not intended as medical advice. Please listen to your doctor and remember that everyone is different. This is just my story.
I am going to share my personal experience with you by revisiting the emotions I was feeling at each moment so it will feel like you’re reading my diary entries. As you walk through the emotional ups and downs with me, it might seem as if recovery was bleak or challenging at times, but don’t quit before you get to my “happily ever after”—it will help you through your own journey.
Thursday - 1 Day Before Surgery
5:00 PM - I spent this morning in a tennis clinic and the afternoon working on my schedule to prepare for being off work for the next few days. No matter how busy I was through the day, nerves and anxiety were my silent partner at every moment. My main anxiety as the day went on was wondering how I was going to manage without coffee tomorrow morning. That caffeine addiction is no joke.
10:00 PM - I just finished wiping down with antiseptic wipes, brushing my teeth and swabbing my mouth with a solution that had the lovely taste of mint-flavored Windex. I’m getting ready to head to bed, hoping to be able to get at least a little sleep, but I’m not overly optimistic.
It’s starting to feel real and serious.
Friday - Day of Surgery
8:00 AM - Last night, just as I finally started to doze off, I was overcome with a crazy bout of itching all over my body. Thankfully, I realized that it was the antiseptic wipes that caused it and remembered the nurse casually mentioning to rinse it off if I had a reaction. After a quick wash, I was finally itch free and eventually drifted off to sleep.
This morning, I caught up on my chores because I knew I wouldn’t be very mobile after the surgery and that I would be able to relax and focus on my recovery if my house was clean and everything was orderly.
In this moment, I feel a bit nervous but am ready to get surgery over with.
10:30 AM - I can’t believe the time is almost here. I’ll be heading to the hospital soon in order to prep for my 12:30 PM surgery time. I’m feeling very grateful that I spent the morning cleaning up—it kept me so busy that the lack of coffee and food didn’t even bother me.
But…I have to say, I’m really not a fan of hospitals. The smells make me super nauseous, and I begin to feel anxiety as soon as I walk through the doors. Luckily, I’m always prepared, so I had gotten permission to take a Xanax to calm my nerves, and it’s beginning to do its job.
Now, I just have to get through today…
6:30 PM - I made it through the surgery! I just finished dinner, sitting at the actual table with my foot propped up, and although I’m exhausted, I’m happy that the big day is behind me.
Here’s how it went down:
- 10:45 AM - First, I changed into my hospital gown. These aren’t known for being fashionable or comfortable, but there were two positives: the staff warmed it up, and I got to keep my bra and underwear on for surgery. I could almost pretend I was at a day spa. So far, so good.
- 11:00 AM - Not even 15 minutes later, my “spa day” bubble was popped. The staff kept bombarding me with the same questions over and over, and while I’m sure there was a method to their madness, it was fairly annoying. Although, I did appreciate their repetitive confirmation that my right foot had the bunion, which eased my fear of surgery being performed on the wrong body part while I was knocked out.
- 11:15 AM - I know I get squeamish about blood draws, but I wasn’t completely prepared for how badly the IV placement would go. I had instant nausea even though I made sure not to peek while they were inserting it. On the positive side—the nurses were just so kind and calming. I can't remember the last time someone was so concerned about MY needs. They hovered without being intrusive while making me as comfortable as possible. "Are you cold? Let me get you a nice warm blanket." "No, you're not allowed to drink anything, but let me get you some ice chips. That should help." Oh, so nice to be the center of attention.
Helpful Hint: If you have a hard time with blood draws, ask them to lay you on your back when they insert the IV. I can’t believe I forgot to ask this time because I know from experience that it does help.
- 12:45 PM - I finally made it to the table (a bit later than my scheduled surgery time of 12:30 PM). I remember them taking my glasses, and the next thing I knew....
- 1:35 PM - I somehow instantly made it through surgery and was waking up in the recovery room with zero pain.
- 2:15 PM - They wheeled me out of the room after less than an hour of recovery. I stepped (without crutches) into the car, wearing a (not-so-cute) shoe-boot that velcroed over my foot.
My view just after waking up
The rest of my afternoon was actually fairly pleasant thanks to the pain medication one of the lovely nurses gave me. I'm not sure what it was, but I still have zero foot pain—it just feels heavy and dead.
Following the doctor's orders, I iced my foot on and off every 20 minutes, with my own added trick: lifting my leg straight up to massage my calf. That dead foot feeling? It’s kind of like when a limb falls asleep, but without that tickly prickling—and the massage makes it go away.
Helpful Hint: Buy or borrow an elevation pillow. I improvised with a stack of regular squishy pillows with little success until mine finally arrived from Amazon. After agonizing between the two-leg or one-leg sizes, I don’t regret selecting the larger option.
Although I continued to ice my foot throughout the afternoon, it still felt numb to the touch with no pain.
Gifts from my amazing friends
Helpful Hint: Set yourself up for a successful night of sleeping!
Sleep is a stressor for me. I've heard it would be difficult to get comfortable, and I also knew that my sweet little dog Teddy would whine all night if he wasn’t able to sleep on top of, or next to, my feet. I set up a 16x16x14 box, folded the top flaps in, and turned it on its side.
My foot box setup
I put my "foot box" on the top sheet and taped the end of the sheet to the bottom of the box. It worked beautifully, if I do say so myself! I threw an oversized comforter over the entire thing and gave my husband a separate top sheet and comforter. It seemed perfect, but it was time to put it to the test.
Helpful Hint: To create your own “foot box,” all you need is a box big enough to fit your foot with some wiggle room on either side.
Saturday - 1 Day Post-Surgery
I had been ready for a difficult night's sleep, but thanks to my “foot box” invention, I slept peacefully, and woke up pain-free this morning with both feet feeling exactly the same. I’m only taking Naproxen twice a day, and no hardcore meds.
I’ve been passing the time watching the Australian Open, as well as a lot of trash TV (I’ve earned it), and continuing to ice my foot on and off every 20 minutes. I’ve continued to follow the doctor’s orders to completely rest for 72 hours.
Helpful Hint: Rent an ice machine or have lots of ice packs ready. Twenty minutes of "off" time isn't long enough to refreeze an ice pack.
Sunday - 2 Days Post-Surgery
I was pleasantly surprised to get another night of sleeping comfortably and another morning waking up pain-free. I did feel a slight twinge once I made my way downstairs, but it was a feeling of soreness, rather than sharp pain.
I’m feeling good and it’s hard to imagine this “long road to recovery” I’m in for.
Monday - Wednesday (3-5 Days Post-Surgery)
Nothing new or noteworthy to mention for the first part of the week—I’m still taking Naproxen when I remember, but at this point, it doesn’t feel necessary. I can tell that my foot isn’t “normal,” but it’s not distracting or even bothersome. In fact, the worst thing is that the “sock” they put over my foot keeps curling down over my ankle like a loose nylon—it’s ugly and annoying. I guess if that’s my worst problem right now, I’m doing well.
The loose sock
Helpful Hint: Before you go under, ask for an extra bandage covering so you can replace the one they put on you when it stretches out.
I really only become aware of a difference in my foot when I’m standing up for extended periods, and even then, it’s not painful—it’s more of a dull, throbbing ache. To me, it feels like too much blood is rushing to it—almost as if it will burst! When I’m sitting upright and keeping it straight out though, it feels fine.
One thing that has changed since surgery is my diet. I’m eating less and don’t feel very hungry, which I attribute to the fact that I’m not able to be as active as normal.
Thursday - 6 Days Post-Surgery
A friend lent me her arm machine (basically a stationary bike for your arms), and it’s pretty amazing. I don't typically work out my arms much, so I only got through five minutes today before stopping because my arms aren’t used to that activity, not due to my surgery.
I also ventured out of the house to run errands, and it wasn’t until the end of the 15-minute trip that my foot felt heavy and I had to prop it up on the dashboard. Don’t worry—my husband was driving!
Friday - 1 Week Post-Surgery & The Big Reveal
I just returned from a doctor’s appointment, where I barraged him with endless questions about when I can get back to doing the things I love to do, and need to do.
Ready for Q&A with my doctor
I left with the understanding that my toe is screwed together firmly so activity won’t get in the way of my recovery, but if I push myself too hard, I may pay for it later with some pain. He did make it clear that I’m not ready to "push off" from my toe, so I need to be cautious about that.
I was also excited to notice how surprised the doctor’s staff was when I easily walked right into the office.
Questions and answers from the conversation with my doctor:
- Drive? Yes, if I'm not on pain medication that makes me tired.
- Lift weights? Yes.
- Ride a stationary bike? Yes, but use the boot and don't strap in.
- Take a ½ mile walk. Yes, but keep it to a stroll.
- Serve? Yes, but don't jump or push on the toe.
- Volley? Yes (after some discussion… Forehand is fine; backhand might be a challenge based on the step)
- Hit hand-fed balls? Same answer as volley.
The doctor also instructed me to continue to wear my ridiculous boot! I eased my disappointment by doing a little shoe shopping online that evening to reward myself once the boot does come off.
Saturday - Sunday - 8 & 9 Days Post-Surgery
Unfortunately, not everything in life can be put on pause due to surgery, and I had to spend today moving stuff from one storage unit to another. But as I mentioned earlier, I’m always prepared, so I had lined up a couple teenagers to help me. I imagined myself sitting in a chair with my foot propped up, telling everybody where to go and what to do like the skilled supervisor I am.
Saturday Evening (Post-Move) -
It turns out that in reality, I don’t possess the patience to watch others work while I sit, which means I was on my feet moving 15 pound boxes for over four and a half hours, with only a few five-minute breaks.
By the time I got home, I was exhausted, and my body rebelled. I spent the next few hours on the couch, alternating between my teeth chattering and feeling like I was burning up. My foot swelled up, and the throbbing pain was awful.
Again, my body took over by making sure it got what it needed, and I slept until 9 AM this morning. For me, that's unheard of. Not only did I sleep more than two hours past my usual “sleeping in” time, but I also took a two hour nap this afternoon. I learned my painful lesson—never move storage units eight days after bunion surgery!
Monday - 1.5 Weeks Post-Surgery
I’m finally back in the groove—working at my desk with my foot propped up and driving for the first time in my new chic little boot.
The pain is pretty non-existent, and all I notice now is the incision on top of my foot.
Tuesday - 13 Days Post-Surgery
Remember that online shopping spree? Well my new shoes arrived, and unfortunately, none of them work…yet. After opening the boxes to try them on, I realized that I’m going to have to stick with my faux Crocs for a while longer. The swelling made the shoes too uncomfortable and difficult to get on.
Helpful Hint: Try slip-ons (like Crocs) in the warmer months and soft zip-up boots (like Uggs) in the winter. Zip-up for boots is a must because you won’t be able to maneuver your foot into it.
Although my feet still aren’t fancy, at least I’m fully recovered from the storage unit incident, so I decided it was time to try a quick workout. I started with a 10-minute, low-impact Peloton ride and a 5-minute arm machine workout. I felt invigorated, but also very ready to be done by the end of both.
I reminded myself that the combination of not working out for weeks, plus my body working overtime to heal itself, makes exercise difficult. I could also feel the blood rushing to my foot, which wasn’t painful, but felt different.
Tuesday - 2.5 Weeks Post-Surgery
I did a 15-minute Peloton workout, and the last 5 minutes were a struggle, but a walk seems out of the question because babying my right foot may make my other muscles a bit sore. Again, I think it's the combination of not being as fit as usual and my body using energy to heal itself. I do think a fitter person could manage to take a stroll.
Thursday - 3 Weeks Post-Surgery
I did a 20-minute Peloton ride and a 10-minute arm workout. My energy felt no different from usual, and my foot almost felt normal.
My new bunion-less foot
I’m ready to venture out onto the court!
Friday - 3 Weeks Post-Surgery
Sadly, the journey to the court stopped before it started, when I realized that the impediment is not how my foot feels, but rather finding shoes that a) I can fit into and b) I'll be comfortable in on the court. Unfortunately, wearing my trusty Crocs seems like an accident waiting to happen.
It looks like I’ll need to wait for the swelling to go down a bit more. Even though I’m close, having to squeeze into shoes is still too uncomfortable.
But it makes me happy to realize that If I was willing to go out onto the court in my Crocs, I could do most anything that doesn’t require moving too quickly.
Thursday - 4 Weeks Post-Surgery
I had my one-month doctor appointment today, and he said I was doing "fine." I was hoping for a more complimentary description of my progress. I felt little irked that I wasn’t overachieving in the healing department.
The doctor gave me what he called "exercises," essentially just bending my toe forward and backward, which makes me realize how limited my range of motion is. I guess I’m starting to understand why it can take eight months to get back to normal.
And yes, I’m still in my Crocs.
Monday - 4.5 Weeks Post-Surgery
Great news! The swelling in my foot has subsided substantially. Unfortunately, the bad news is that we were inundated with heavy rain and wind, and we don’t have many indoor facilities here in California, so tennis is still not in my immediate horizon.
My feet in shoes
Thursday 5 Weeks Post-Surgery
I was so excited to finally head to the court today! I avoided my regular tennis shoes so that I wouldn’t overdo it and wore regular sneakers instead.
And yes! Even though I’m out of practice, I still had a wonderful time.
I should note that I'm an average 3.0 player, so the ball is never moving very fast, and I also learned tennis as an adult. I imagine those who have played since childhood may have even greater success at this point in recovery.
Post-Tennis Reflections - We started short court, and it was just fine.
Eventually, we moved to volleys, which were no-brainers. Luckily, the footwork didn’t bother me at all (even the stepping part of the volley).
Serving was about the same as short court. My being out of practice caused issues, but I had zero pain and no worries about my foot.
Rallying gave me the most trouble. I tended to be late to the ball, so I hit quite a few too long. I think my rustiness was at fault for my imperfect play, not my foot.
Wednesday - Almost 6 Weeks Post-Surgery
Today, I wore my shoes with a larger toe box and splurged on a private lesson with our local tennis pro.
Post-Tennis Reflections - We focused on my strokes, and aside from being late to the ball, things went really well. I didn’t have pain, and my foot wasn’t restrictive. I highly recommend working 1-on-1 during recovery. Since the pro can feed the ball directly to you, there won’t be much running involved.
Thursday - Almost 6 Weeks Post-Surgery
Today was my first clinic, where I focused on drills without much running. Toe flexibility was the biggest problem. Sprinting forward stretches them further than I’m comfortable with yet, but all-in-all, I feel "back-ish."
7.5 - 8.5 Weeks Post-Surgery
So, it was bound to happen. I overdid it. My doctor kept telling me, "You'll know when you've done too much." And, yup…I did.
It was a big week.
- 2-hour clinic on Thursday
- Match on Friday
- 3.5-mile hilly walk on Saturday (in non-supportive shoes)
I learned another valuable (and painful) lesson—don't wear stupid shoes, especially if you’re knowingly overdoing it. I would have been better off cramming into a tight pair of supportive shoes and protecting my delicate bunion scar with moleskin than to wear the loose-fitting shoes I chose.
Saturday Evening - I’ve been having sharp pains in both of my feet, and I seriously think I might have "ruined" the surgery (even though I know my doctor said that’s not possible).
I texted my tennis partner to find a sub for our Sunday match (looking back, four days in a row was pretty aggressive), but so far, she hasn’t been able to find one.
Sunday Morning - I woke up this morning feeling pain-free, so I squeezed into my most supportive tennis shoes and went for it.
Post-Tennis Reflections - The match went okay. I still feel a little bit of pain in my arches that started towards the end, but it isn’t anything near excruciating.
11 Weeks Post-Surgery
I played in a tennis tournament today and felt zero pain in my foot. It’s still a teeny bit swollen and doesn’t flex as much as my other foot, but I’m not impaired at all on the court. The only thing holding me back now is that even the tiny bit of swelling doesn’t allow me to fit into a shoe with a small toe box (tennis or otherwise).
I had a doctor's visit, and he wants to give me orthotics now. Funny how I started this whole journey thinking that would solve my problem. I asked to wait until the swelling is down completely, and we decided to check back in another month.
Orthotics and beyond
4 Months Post-Surgery
I’m ready for orthotics! My doctor cast my foot instead of doing a digital scan. He told me he’s used both before and felt the casting provided a better fitting orthotic. It is definitely the low-tech route, but he hasn’t led me astray yet.
I've tried orthotics multiple times in the past, and the ones I got with a digital scan never fit quite right. As he cast my foot, I was doubtful that this could be better.
5 Months Post-Surgery
I stand (literally, thanks to bunion surgery) corrected. My new orthotics ended up being way better than any other orthotic I've had. I freaked out when I first saw them because they looked kind of... thick and big. But despite this, they felt comfortable as soon as I put them on.
I slid them into my tennis shoes and played a match without removing them. My only gripe is that they squeak a little in my shoe—but that's a minor price to pay!
6 Months Post-Surgery
I made it! At this point, it's easy to forget I've had surgery. I don't think the swelling has gone down entirely, but I don't notice it at all, and I can fit into any shoe I want.
My toes curl, but not to the same extent that my other foot does. To be fair, I haven't been doing my "exercises." I have a scar, but I never used any scar cream either.
My new foot!
My 6-month bunion affair taught me some lessons about listening to my body, leaning on my support system, and about how much I use my toes.
8 Months Post-Surgery
The swelling is completely gone, and I’ve forgotten about the surgery. Now, I’m starting to think about doing my other foot.
I went through a huge array of emotions on this journey, but as I sign off today, my overwhelming feeling is relief. I’m relieved that I listened to my doctor and my body, and I’m proud of how I’ve not only survived, but thrived, through this process. It is my wish that if you too travel the road of bunion surgery, you will take my lessons to heart and find your own way through.
If not for the love of tennis, then to keep doing whatever it is that brings joy to your heart.
Addendum - The Doctor Debate
Me and my BFF
My bestie (not a tennis player) also had a bunion. She saw a different doctor than I did, and we've had many discussions about how different our experiences were, mainly:
- Nerve blocker vs. anesthesia
- Post-surgery activity
Nerve Blocker vs. Anesthesia
Whereas I was given local anesthesia, my friend was given a nerve blocker. My doctor believes that nerve blockers create a greater risk of not recovering sensation. (And interesting to note that neither of us knew that there was even an alternative when we went into surgery…)
My friend woke up in extreme pain on her first night (she thinks the nerve blocker wore off). It's impossible to tell if she would have had the same reaction with local anesthesia, but we found the difference in our experiences interesting.
Risk factored into both of our post-surgery treatments. My friend's doctor was much more risk-averse—she couldn't put any pressure on her foot for two weeks.
Her doctor explained that this avoidance was to minimize swelling and make sure the bones healed properly.
Because of that, she rented a scooter and left the surgery with crutches. She also got two different sized boots and the same horrible sock (no escaping that one) as I did. After wearing the mini-boot for two weeks, she started using a large boot that extended up to the knee for an additional few weeks.
So who was right?
It was the same surgery, with two very different experiences. We'd love to get these doctors to debate.
No two people are the same. My friend is a very active biker and walker but doesn't play tennis. She also didn't have the soul-crushing feeling of not being able to do her activities.
At the end of the day, we both went with what felt most comfortable, and we would both make the same choice again. So I guess that makes our surgeons (and choices) both perfectly right for us.