Swollen Ankle & Leg | Definition & Patient Education

Swollen Ankle and Leg

What Is a Swollen Ankle or Leg?

The ankles and legs are common sources of swelling because of the pull of gravity on the fluids in your body. However, fluid retention is not the only cause of a swollen ankle or leg. Injuries and subsequent inflammation can cause the fluid retention.

A swollen ankle or leg can cause the lower leg to appear larger in size than normal. This can make it difficult to walk, make the skin feel tight and stretched over your leg, and cause pain. While the condition is not always cause for concern, knowing the cause can help you or your doctor rule out a more serious problem.

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What Causes a Swollen Ankle or Leg?

If you have a job that requires you to stand for a significant portion of the day, you may experience a swollen ankle or leg. Older people are more likely to experience this problem as well. A long airplane flight or car ride may also cause a swollen angle, leg, and/or foot.

Certain medical conditions can also cause a swollen ankle and/or leg. These include:

  • being overweight
  • venous insufficiency
  • pregnancy
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • blood clot in the leg
  • heart failure
  • kidney failure
  • leg infection
  • liver failure
  • lymphedema
  • previous surgery, such as pelvic, leg, ankle, or foot surgery

Taking certain medications can also lead to a swollen ankle and/or leg. These include:

  • antidepressants, including phenelzine, nortriptyline, and amitriptyline
  • calcium channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure, including nifedipine, amlodipine, and verapamil
  • hormone medications, such as birth control pills, estrogen, or testosterone
  • steroids

Inflammation due to acute or chronic injury can also cause a swollen ankle and/or leg. Conditions that can cause this effect include:

  • ankle sprain
  • osteoarthritis
  • gout
  • broken leg
  • Achilles tendon rupture
  • ACL tear

When to Seek Medical Help

Seek emergency medical care if you experience a swollen ankle and/or leg accompanied by heart-related symptoms. These can include chest pain, trouble breathing, dizziness, or mental confusion.

You should also seek emergency treatment if you notice a deformity or crookedness to the ankle that was not previously there. If an injury prevents you from putting weight on your leg, this is also cause for concern,

If you are pregnant, seek immediate medical attention if you have symptoms associated with preeclampsia or dangerously high blood pressure. This includes severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and very little urine output.

Seek medical attention if at-home treatments do not help to reduce swelling or if discomfort increases.

This information is a summary. Always seek medical attention if you are concerned you may be experiencing a medical emergency.

How Is a Swollen Ankle or Leg Treated?

If you seek medical attention for a swollen ankle and leg, your physician will likely determine what is causing your symptoms. Testing may include blood tests, an X-ray, electrocardiogram, and urinalysis.

If swelling is caused by a medical condition, such as congestive heart failure, a physician may prescribe diuretics. These medications affect the kidneys and stimulate them to release fluids.

Swelling due to injury may require resetting a bone, placing a cast, or even surgery to repair the injured area.

If your swollen ankle or leg is painful, a doctor may prescribe a pain reliever or recommend an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium.

Home Care

To treat a swollen ankle or leg at home, remember the acronym RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. The elevation in particular helps to encourage fluid return away from your leg. Your ankle should be higher than your heart if you are lying down.

If you are traveling or are on your feet frequently, wearing support stockings can encourage fluid return. Refrain from wearing tight shoes or clothing that can affect circulation. Walking, especially if you are on a long flight, can help to encourage fluid return.

How Can I Prevent a Swollen Ankle or Leg?

If you have a medical condition that can lead to a swollen ankle or leg, careful management of symptoms and taking your medications on time can prevent the condition. Patients with congestive heart failure or kidney disease may need to limit the amount of fluid they take in each day.

While you cannot always prevent injuries during physical activity, warming up first can help. This includes taking a walk or light jog before engaging in vigorous physical activity. Wearing supportive footwear can also help.

A low-sodium diet can discourage the fluid retention that causes a swollen ankle or leg. This includes refraining from eating fast food. Many frozen meals often contain excess sodium, so it’s important to read food labels carefully.

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