What Is Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling?
Foot, leg, and ankle swelling—also known as peripheral edema—refers to an accumulation of fluid in these parts of the body. The buildup of fluid is not usually painful, unless it is due to injury. Swelling is often more apparent in the lower area of the body because of gravity.
Older people frequently experience this type of swelling. While it usually does not pose a significant health risk, it is important to know when to see a doctor since swelling may indicate a more serious underlying health issue.
What Are the Main Causes of Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling?
There are many potential causes of foot, leg, and ankle swelling. They include certain lifestyle conditions or medications, such as:
- being overweight
- standing for prolonged periods of time
- being confined for long periods of time (especially during car rides or flights)
- taking estrogen or testosterone
- taking certain antidepressants, such as tricyclics or MAO inhibitors
- taking certain blood pressure medications
- taking steroids
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Other medical conditions or changes in your body can also cause your legs, feet, and ankles to swell. These include:
- natural changes during a woman’s menstrual cycle
- preeclampsia (a condition during pregnancy that causes high blood pressure)
- a blood clot of the leg
- an infection in the leg area
- venous insufficiency (when the veins are not adequately pumping blood)
- recent pelvic surgery
- organ failure (particularly in the heart, liver, or kidney)
- pericarditis (a swelling of the membrane around the heart)
- lymphedema (a condition that causes blockages in the lymph system)
- cirrhosis (scarring on the liver)
How Can You Treat Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling at Home?
There are several measures you can try at home if your feet, legs, and ankles regularly swell up. These can help relieve swelling when it occurs and possibly help to prevent it.
You should try to elevate your legs whenever you are lying down, to a position above your heart. You may want to place a pillow under your legs to make it more comfortable.
You can also:
- stay active and focus on exercising the legs
- try to reduce your salt intake
- avoid the use of garters
- maintain a healthy body weight
- purchase support stockings.
- choose clothing that fits loosely around your thigh area
- make an effort to stand up and move around on a regular basis during air travel
When Should You See a Doctor for Your Condition?
While swelling in the lower extremities can simply be the result of standing for too long, it can also be a sign of something more serious. The following information provides some general guidelines about when swelling should be considered a medical emergency, and when it warrants a trip to your doctor.
If you experience any of the following symptoms along with foot, leg, and ankle swelling, you should go to the nearest emergency room right away:
- pain, pressure, or tightness in the chest area
- feelings of faintness
- trouble breathing or shortness of breath
Doctor’s Office Visit
If any of the following describe your situation, you should schedule an appointment with your family doctor as soon as possible:
- you have worsening swelling in addition to heart or kidney disease
- the swollen areas feel warm to the touch
- the swollen areas are red in color
- your body temperature is higher than normal
- you are currently pregnant and are experiencing swelling that is severe or sudden
- you have swelling in your legs and also have liver disease
- you have tried the tips for at-home care, but they have not been successful
- your swelling is getting worse
What to Expect During Your Doctor’s Visit
During your visit, the doctor will conduct a physical examination and ask you about your symptoms. You should be prepared to explain:
- where you are noticing the swelling
- the times of day when the swelling tends to be worse
- if you are experiencing any other symptoms
- if you notice any factors that tend to make the swelling better or worse
To help diagnose the cause of the swelling, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
- blood tests
- urine tests
- an ECG to assess heart function
If a health condition is determined to be cause of your swelling, your doctor will first attempt to treat that underlying condition. If the cause of your swelling is non-serious or lifestyle-related, your doctor may recommend some of the lifestyle changes mentioned above. He or she may also probably advise you to reduce your sodium intake.
According to the National Institutes of Health, in some cases, doctors will prescribe diuretics to help reduce swelling. However, these medicines have side effects, and are usually used only if home remedies are not working. (NIH)