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Foot, leg, and ankle swelling is also known as peripheral edema, which refers to an accumulation of fluid in these parts of the body. The buildup of fluid usually isn’t painful, unless it’s due to injury. Swelling is often more apparent in the lower areas of the body because of gravity.
Foot, leg, and ankle swelling is most common in older adults. The swelling can occur on both sides of the body or on just one side. One or more areas in the lower body may be affected.
While swelling in the foot, leg, and ankle usually doesn’t pose a significant health risk, it’s important to know when to see a doctor. Swelling may sometimes indicate a more serious underlying health issue that needs to be treated right away.
There are many potential causes of foot, leg, and ankle swelling. In most cases, swelling occurs as a result of certain lifestyle factors, such as:
- Being overweight. Excess body mass can decrease blood circulation, causing fluid to build up in the feet, legs, and ankles.
- Standing or sitting for long periods. When the muscles are inactive, they can’t pump body fluids back up toward the heart. The retention of water and blood can cause swelling in the legs.
Foot, leg, and ankle swelling can also occur while taking particular medications, such as:
- estrogen or testosterone
- some antidepressants, including tricyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and aspirin
These types of medications can lead to water retention, causing swelling in the legs.
Make sure to talk to your doctor if you suspect that your medication is causing swelling in your lower extremities. Don’t stop taking your medication until you speak with your doctor.
Other possible causes for foot, leg, and ankle swelling include certain medical conditions or body changes, such as:
- Natural hormonal changes. Fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone can cause reduced circulation in the legs, resulting in swelling. These changes in hormone levels may occur during pregnancy and a woman’s menstrual cycle.
- Blood clot in the leg. A blood clot is a clump of blood that’s in a solid state. When a blood clot forms in a vein of the leg, it can impair blood flow, leading to swelling and discomfort.
- Injury or infection. An injury or infection affecting the foot, leg, or ankle results in increased blood flow to the area. This presents as swelling.
- Venous insufficiency. This condition occurs when the veins are unable to pump blood adequately, causing blood to pool in the legs.
- Pericarditis. This is a long-term inflammation of the pericardium, which is the sac-like membrane around the heart. The condition causes breathing difficulties and severe, chronic swelling in the legs and ankles.
- Lymphedema. Also known as lymphatic obstruction, lymphedema causes blockages in the lymphatic system. This system is made up of lymph nodes and blood vessels that help carry fluid throughout the body. A blockage in the lymphatic system causes tissues to become swollen with fluid, resulting in swelling in the arms and legs.
- Preeclampsia. This condition causes high blood pressure during pregnancy. The increase in blood pressure can result in poor circulation and swelling in the face, hands, and legs.
- Cirrhosis. This refers to severe scarring of the liver, which is often caused by alcohol abuse or infection (hepatitis B or C). The condition can cause high blood pressure and poor circulation in the feet, legs, and ankles.
There are several treatments you can try at home if your feet, legs, and ankles regularly swell up. These remedies can help relieve swelling when it occurs:
- Elevate your legs whenever you’re lying down. The legs should be raised so they’re above your heart. You may want to place a pillow under your legs to make it more comfortable.
- Stay active and focus on stretching and moving the legs.
- Reduce your salt intake, which can decrease the amount of fluid that may build up in your legs.
- Avoid wearing garters and other types of restrictive clothing around your thighs.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Wear support stockings or compression socks.
- Stand up or move around at least once every hour, especially if you’re sitting or standing still for long periods of time.
While swelling in the lower extremities usually isn’t cause for concern, it can sometimes be a sign of something more serious. Here are some general guidelines that can help you identify when swelling warrants a trip to the doctor or to the emergency room.
You should schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible if:
- you have heart or kidney disease and are experiencing swelling
- you have liver disease and are experiencing swelling in your legs
- the swollen areas are red and feel warm to the touch
- your body temperature is higher than normal
- you’re pregnant and are experiencing sudden or severe swelling
- you’ve tried home remedies, but they haven’t been successful
- your swelling is getting worse
You should go to the hospital immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms along with foot, leg, and ankle swelling:
- pain, pressure, or tightness in the chest area
- feeling lightheaded or faint
- trouble breathing or shortness of breath
During your appointment, your doctor will perform a physical examination and ask you about your symptoms. Be prepared to explain:
- where you’re noticing the swelling
- the times of day when the swelling tends to be worse
- any other symptoms you may be experiencing
- any factors that appear 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, including blood count, kidney and liver function studies, and electrolytes to evaluate the various organs
- X-rays to view the bones and other tissues
- ultrasound to examine the organs, blood vessels, and tissues
- electrocardiogram to assess heart function
If your swelling is related to a lifestyle habit or a minor injury, your doctor will likely recommend home treatments. If your swelling is the result of an underlying health condition, your doctor will first attempt to treat that specific condition.
Swelling may be reduced with prescription medications, such as diuretics. However, these medications can cause side effects, and are usually used only if home remedies aren’t working.
Swelling of the foot, leg, and ankle can’t always be prevented. However, there are some steps you can take to prevent it. Some good strategies include:
- Exercise regularly to maintain good circulation. For adults ages 18 to 64, the
World Health Organizationrecommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week.
- Avoid sitting or standing for a long time. Make sure you get up or move around periodically if you sit or stand still for prolonged periods.
- Regulate your salt intake. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day.