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Swollen Ankle and Leg

Overview

The ankles and legs are common sites of swelling because of gravity’s effect 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 also cause fluid retention and swelling.

A swollen ankle or leg can cause the lower part of the leg to appear larger than normal. The swelling can make it difficult to walk. It may be painful and make the skin feel tight and stretched over your leg. While the condition is not always a reason for concern, knowing its cause can help rule out a more serious problem.

Pictures of swollen ankle and leg

What causes a swollen ankle or leg?

Causes

If you stand for a large parts of the day, you may develop a swollen ankle or leg. Older age can also make swelling more likely. A long flight or car ride may cause a swollen angle, leg, or foot, too.

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

  • being overweight
  • venous insufficiency
  • pregnancy
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • blood clots in the leg
  • heart failure
  • kidney failure
  • leg infection
  • liver failure
  • lymphedema, or swelling caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system
  • previous surgery, such as pelvic, leg, ankle, or foot surgery

Taking certain medications can also lead to swelling in the ankle or leg. These include:

Inflammation due to acute or chronic injury can also cause a swollen ankle or leg. Conditions that can cause this type of inflammation include:

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

Edema

Edema is a type of swelling that occurs when extra fluid flows into certain areas of your body. It usually affects the:

  • legs
  • arms
  • hands
  • ankles
  • feet

Mild edema can be caused by pregnancy, premenstrual symptoms, consuming too much salt, or being in one position for a long time. This type of leg or ankle swelling can also be caused by certain medications, such as:

  • thiazolidinediones (used to treat diabetes)
  • high blood pressure medications
  • steroids
  • anti-inflammatory medications
  • estrogen

Edema can also be caused by a more serious medical issue, such as:

  • kidney disease or damage
  • congestive heart failure
  • veins that are weak or damaged
  • a lymphatic system that isn’t working properly

Mild edema will usually go away without any medical treatment. However, if you have a more serious case of edema, it can be treated with medications.

Why do swollen ankles and legs occur during pregnancy?

pregnant women

Swollen ankles and legs are common when you’re pregnant because of factors such as:

  • natural fluid retention
  • pressure on veins due to the extra weight of your uterus
  • changing hormones

The swelling tends to go away after you deliver your baby. Until then, you can try some tips to prevent or lessen the swelling.

thumbs up Tips for prevention
  • Avoid standing for long periods of time.
  • Sit with your feet raised.
  • Keep as cool as possible.
  • Spend time in the pool.
  • Keep a regular exercise routine as approved by your doctor.
  • Sleep on your left side.

Don’t reduce your water intake if you have swelling. You need plenty of fluids during pregnancy, usually at least 10 cups per day.

If the swelling is painful, you should see your doctor to make sure your blood pressure is normal. Your doctor will also want to check if you have a blood clot and rule out other possible conditions, such as preeclampsia.

Learn more: Preeclampsia »

When should I seek medical help?

when to see a doctor

Seek emergency medical care if you also have heart-related symptoms. These can include:

  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • dizziness
  • mental confusion

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

If you’re pregnant, seek immediate medical attention if you have symptoms associated with preeclampsia or dangerously high blood pressure. These include:

  • severe headaches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • very little urine output

Seek medical attention if at-home treatments don’t help reduce swelling or if your discomfort increases.

How is a swollen ankle or leg treated?

Treatment

Home care

To treat a swollen ankle or leg at home, remember the acronym RICE:

Rest: Stay off your ankle or leg until you can get to the doctor or until the swelling goes away.

Ice: Put ice on the swollen area as soon as you can for 15–20 minutes. Then, repeat every three to four hours.

Compression: Wrap your ankle or leg snugly, but be sure not to cut off circulation. Support stockings may be an option.

Elevation: Raise your ankle or leg above your heart (or as far above your heart as possible). Two pillows will usually give you the correct elevation. This encourages fluid to move away from your leg.

Medical treatment

If you seek medical attention, your physician will likely determine what’s causing your symptoms. Testing may include:

  • blood tests
  • an X-ray
  • an electrocardiogram
  • urinalysis

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

If your swelling is caused by an ongoing medical condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, your treatment may turn into management and prevention of the condition.

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

If the swelling is painful, a doctor may prescribe a pain reliever or over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium.

Mild swelling from pregnancy or a mild injury usually goes away on its own after delivery of the baby or after sufficient rest.

After treatment, you should contact your doctor if:

  • your swelling gets worse
  • you have breathing difficulty or chest pain
  • you feel dizzy or faint
  • your swelling does not decrease as quickly as the doctor said it would

What are possible complications?

thumbs up RICE
  • Rest: Stay off your ankle or leg until you can get to the doctor or until the swelling goes away.
  • Ice: Put ice on the swollen area as soon as you can for 15–20 minutes. Then, repeat every three to four hours.
  • Compression: Wrap your ankle or leg snugly, but be sure not to cut off circulation. Support stockings may be an option.
  • Elevation: Raise your ankle or leg above your heart (or as far above your heart as possible). Two pillows will usually give you the correct elevation. This encourages fluid to move away from your leg.

Complications from a swollen leg or ankle can include:

  • increased swelling
  • redness or warmth
  • sudden pain that was not there previously
  • chest pain lasting for more than one to three minutes
  • feeling faint or dizzy
  • confusion

If any of these conditions arise, you should contact a medical professional immediately. They will be able to assess, rule out, or treat serious medical conditions.

How can I prevent a swollen ankle or leg?

Complications

Medical condition management

If you have a medical condition that can lead to swelling, take your medications and manage your symptoms carefully. People with congestive heart failure or kidney disease may need to limit the amount of fluid they take in each day.

Exercise precautions

While you can’t 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. Supportive footwear can also help. Proper shoes can help correct any gait issues and help prevent injuries. You should choose shoes that match your activity or your specific needs. If you jog or run, get fitted by a professional for the correct shoe.

Compression socks

In some cases, compression socks can help prevent and alleviate ankle and foot swelling. Compression socks apply pressure to your lower leg and can help with swelling caused by several conditions. These conditions include:

You should check with your doctor before using compression socks for your swelling. They should be properly fitted for you and your needs. Compression socks should be worn during the day and removed before you go to bed.

Diet

A low-sodium diet discourages fluid retention. It involves refraining from eating fast food. Many frozen meals and canned soups often contain excess sodium, so read your food labels carefully.

Leg elevation

If you stand a lot during the day, you can also prop your feet up or soak them in water when you get home to help prevent swelling.

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