Injuries and inflammation can cause swelling in your lower extremities. But you may also experience fluid retention due to an underlying health condition that requires medical attention.
The feet, ankles, and legs are common sites of swelling because of gravity’s effect on the fluids in the human body. However, fluid retention from gravity isn’t the only cause of a swollen ankle or leg. Injuries and subsequent inflammation can also cause fluid retention and swelling.
A swollen foot, 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, with the skin over your leg feeling tight and stretched out.
This swelling is usually temporary and not cause for concern. But you’ll still want to take measures to reduce swelling. This way, you can reduce any pain you’re experiencing and resume your daily activities.
If parts of your lower leg remain swollen or you have other symptoms, it could signal that you have an underlying health condition. Knowing the cause of your swelling can help rule out a more serious problem.
Continue reading to learn possible causes of a swollen foot, ankle, or leg, and what you can do to reduce swelling.
When is it an emergency?
You should seek medical care right away if your swelling is accompanied by any of these symptoms:
- chest pain, pressure, or tightness
- trouble breathing
- mental confusion
- leg ulcerations or blisters
- an abnormality or crookedness to the ankle that wasn’t there before
- inability to put weight on your leg
Also seek medical care if at-home treatments don’t help reduce swelling or if your discomfort increases.
Swelling in the lower leg is typically the result of one of two things:
- edema, a buildup of fluid
- inflammation, your body’s response to injury or infection
Edema is a common condition where excess fluid is trapped in your body’s tissues. This causes swelling and puffiness of the tissue directly under your skin in your feet, ankles, and legs. It can also affect your hands and arms.
Other symptoms of edema include stretched or shiny skin, or difficulty walking.
Some people may also experience pitting edema, in which the skin retains a dimple after you press on it for several seconds.
Later on, we’ll review health conditions that can cause edema, but some causes are just everyday activities or life factors, such as:
- older age
- being overweight or having obesity
- standing too long
- sitting too long (e.g., on a long flight)
- hot weather
Inflammation is your immune system’s response to injury, infection, or disease. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).
Swelling from inflammation is usually accompanied by:
- skin that is warm to the touch
- skin redness or discoloration
- reduced function
Now let’s look at some specific causes of edema or inflammation in your lower leg.
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
You may be more prone to swollen feet in the evening and especially after being on your feet all day.
Swelling prevention in pregnancy
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 that 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.
Sudden or excessive swelling in your ankles, hands, and face could be a sign of preeclampsia. This is a serious condition where you develop high blood pressure and protein in the urine. It usually happens after the 20th week of pregnancy.
People with preeclampsia may also have:
- infrequent urination
- difficulty breathing
- abdominal pain
- vision changes, such as blurry vision
Contact your doctor right away if you experience sudden swelling, especially if it’s accompanied by these other symptoms.
Preeclampsia warning signs
If you’re pregnant, seek immediate medical attention if you have symptoms associated with preeclampsia or dangerously high blood pressure. These include:
Swelling in the foot, ankle, or leg could be the result of inflammation due to acute, or even chronic, injury. When you hurt your lower leg, swelling occurs as a result of blood rushing to the affected area.
Conditions that can cause this type of inflammation include:
The R.I.C.E. approach is often recommended to treat leg and foot injuries. This method involves:
- Rest. Rest the affected limb and avoid putting pressure on it.
- Ice. Ice your foot for up to 20 minutes at a time throughout the day.
- Compression. Use a compression bandage to stop swelling.
- Elevation. Keep your feet lifted as you rest so that they’re above your heart, especially at night.
While resting the leg or foot is important, too much rest can lead to problems with circulation. Check with your doctor about the appropriate amount of activity for your leg.
Depending on the severity of your injury, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain reliever. You may need to wear a brace or splint. Severe cases may require surgery.
You should see a doctor if your pain is severe or you’re unable to put any weight on or move your foot. Also seek medical care if you’re experiencing numbness.
Your swollen foot, ankle, or leg may be due to an underlying chronic condition. It might also be due to medications that you’re taking or as an after-effect of surgery.
Here are some of the possible underlying conditions that may cause your foot, ankle, or leg to swell.
Blood clots hamper blood flow up to your heart and lead to swollen legs, feet, or ankles. The swelling often occurs on one side of your body.
Swelling may be accompanied by other symptoms such as:
A blood clot is a medical emergency. Seek care immediately if you have these symptoms.
Treatment options and preventive measures include:
- taking blood thinners, if directed by a healthcare professional
- avoiding extended periods of sitting
- exercising regularly
- increasing fluid intake
Bursitis is when fluid-filled sacs around your joints (called bursae) become inflamed. This causes swelling and pain at the joint. It’s common in older adults and people who repetitively use specific joints, like athletes or people in certain jobs.
Bursitis can develop at any joint where there is a bursa. In the leg, it’s most common at the knee and ankle.
In addition to pain and swelling, symptoms include:
- joint pain
- erythema, skin that’s red, purple, or slightly darker depending on skin tone
- difficulty walking
Pain relief medications along with rest and ice may help to manage the condition. In more severe cases, corticosteroids may be needed. If the bursa becomes infected, you may need antibiotics.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that occurs beneath the skin, causing pain, discoloration, and swelling. Cellulitis may be life-threatening if left untreated.
Symptoms of cellulitis include:
- redness (or darkening) of your skin, depending on skin tone
- a quickly growing rash
- tight, glossy, swollen skin
- a feeling of warmth in the affected area
- pus-filled abscess
You may experience fever with cellulitis, but not always. The area is red and expanding. Often the edge of the redness can be felt under the skin, as though there is a piece of cardboard under the skin.
If you experience signs of cellulitis, get medical treatment immediately.
Cellulitis is treated with antibiotics. It should go away after 7-10 days of treatment.
Chronic venous insufficiency
Chronic venous insufficiency is caused by damaged valves in the veins combined with standing or sitting for extended periods. This affects blood moving up to your heart from your legs and feet. Blood can collect in the veins of your legs and feet, causing swelling.
You may experience the following symptoms:
- aching or tiredness in the legs
- new varicose veins
- flaky, itchy skin on the legs or feet
- venous stasis ulcers
See a doctor if you have signs of venous insufficiency. It’s easier to treat the earlier it’s diagnosed.
- avoiding extended periods of standing or sitting
- taking breaks for leg, feet, and ankle exercises during long periods of sitting
- taking breaks to elevate your feet during long periods of standing
- elevating legs above heart level while resting
- walking and exercising regularly
- maintaining a moderate weight
- wearing compression stockings
- using antibiotics to treat skin infections
- practicing good skin hygiene
Diabetes affects your ability to control sugar levels in your blood. High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels which leads to poor blood circulation. This can cause blood to settle in your lower leg, causing swelling.
Prolonged circulation problems may eventually lead to nerve damage in your foot, which could also make it more susceptible to injury which can lead to swelling..
To help with swelling caused by diabetes, your doctor may recommend:
- compression socks
- foot elevation
- regular exercise
- weight loss
- staying hydrated
- limiting salt intake
- magnesium supplements
- soaking feet in Epsom salts
Nerve damage in your foot can also cause Charcot foot, an inflammatory condition that affects bones and tissue in the foot. In addition to swelling and numbness, Charcot foot is characterized by:
- change in foot shape
Charcot foot is a serious condition that could require amputation if not treated.
A buildup of uric acid in your blood is called gout. As an acute condition, it can cause swelling in affected joints. This often affects the feet, particularly the big toe.
Gout flares usually last for 3 to 10 days. But if left untreated, gout can become chronic, leaving lumps called tophi in your joints and tissue. Tophi can cause permanent damage to your joints.
Associated symptoms of gout include:
- joint pain
- skin that’s warm to the touch
- misshapen joints
There are medications you can take to prevent gout flare-ups. You can also take NSAIDs or corticosteroids to relieve the pain.
In right-sided heart failure, the heart’s right ventricle is too weak to pump enough blood to the lungs. As blood builds up in the veins, fluid gets pushed out into the tissues in the body. This could be brought on by a heart attack, valve disorders, or lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Right-sided heart failure symptoms include swelling and shortness of breath. You may also experience:
- discomfort when lying down flat
- a faster or abnormal heart rate
- pain, pressure, or tightness in the chest
- difficulty exercising
- coughing up pink, foamy mucus
- stubborn cough with blood-tinged phlegm
- increased nighttime urination
- swollen abdomen
- rapid weight gain from water retention
- fainting or severe weakness
Get immediate medical treatment if you’re experiencing these symptoms.
Heart failure needs lifelong management. Treatment options include medications, surgery, and medical devices.
If you have a bacterial infection, you may need prescription oral or topical antibiotics to treat it.
If you have kidney disease or your kidneys aren’t working properly, you may have too much salt in your blood. This causes your body to retain water, which can lead to swelling in your feet and ankles.
The following symptoms may also be present:
- difficulty concentrating
- loss of appetite
- feeling tired and weak
- difficulty sleeping
- muscle twitching and cramping
- puffy eyes
- dry, itchy skin
- increased urination
- nausea and vomiting
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- high blood pressure
Treatment options include:
- blood pressure medications
- statins and other cholesterol-lowering medications
- medications for anemia
- phosphate binder medications, which help block the absorption of phosphate
- calcium and vitamin D supplements
- a low-protein diet
Liver disease can cause foot and ankle swelling due to the liver not functioning properly. This leads to excess fluid in your legs and feet, which causes swelling.
Liver disease can be caused by genetic factors. Viruses, alcohol, and obesity are also linked to liver damage.
Other symptoms include:
- a painful and swollen abdomen
- jaundice, or yellowish skin and eyes
- bruising easily
- itchy skin
- dark urine
- pale, bloody, or tar-colored stool
- nausea or vomiting
- loss of appetite
Treatment options include:
- weight loss, if you have obesity
- abstaining from alcohol
Other symptoms may include:
- a feeling of tightness or heaviness
- limited range of motion
- repeated infections
- fibrosis, or thickened tissue
You can’t cure lymphedema, but you can manage the condition by reducing pain and swelling. Severe lymphedema may require surgery.
Treatment options include:
- light exercises that encourage lymph fluid drainage
- elevation of the legs
- special bandages, known as short-stretch bandages, for wrapping your foot or leg
- manual lymph drainage massage
- pneumatic compression, in which inflatable cuffs are placed around the legs
- compression garments
- complete decongestive therapy (CDT), which combines multiple techniques such as exercise, bandaging, and massage
Synovial fluid reduces friction in your joints so you can move them more easily. But a buildup of too much synovial fluid in your knee can cause a popliteal cyst (or Baker’s cyst) to form. It’s usually the result of injury or arthritis.
The cyst appears as a large bump behind the knee. Other symptoms that may go along with it include:
- limited motion
- bruising or rupturing
You can relieve pain from the cyst with steroids like cortisone. Your doctor can even drain the cyst, but that doesn’t mean it won’t return. The most important thing to do is to identify and treat the underlying cause of the cyst.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that affects the lining of your joints. Fluid builds up around your joints, causing swelling and potentially permanent damage.
Along with swelling, you may experience:
- joint pain
- stiffness in your joints
- rheumatoid nodules
If you experience swelling due to RA, your doctor may recommend:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
- a splint to support an affected joint
- physical therapy
Swelling is common after surgery. The early stages of healing usually involve inflammation, which can cause moderate to severe swelling. Mild to moderate swelling may persist for up to 6 months depending on the type of surgery you had.
Reduce post-operative swelling by:
- elevating your leg
- using an ice pack or cold compress
- using compression stockings
If your swelling goes on for too long or gets more severe, talk to your doctor. This could be a sign of an infection or blood clot.
Some medications cause fluid to collect, especially in the lower part of your body. These include:
- antidepressants, especially phenelzine (Nardil)
- calcium channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure, including:
- nifedipine (Adalat CC, Afeditab CR, Procardia)
- amlodipine (Norvasc)
- verapamil (Verelan)
- hormone medications, such as birth control pills, estrogen, or testosterone
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- diabetes medications
If you suspect that your medications are causing swollen feet and ankles, it’s important to see a doctor. Together, you can determine whether there are other options in terms of medications or dosages. They may prescribe a diuretic to help reduce excess fluid.
Drinking alcohol can lead to swollen feet and ankles since your body retains more water after drinking. Usually, it’ll go away within a few days. If the swelling doesn’t subside during this time, it could be cause for concern.
If swelling frequently occurs in your feet and ankles when you drink alcohol, it may be a sign of a problem with your liver, heart, or kidneys. This could also be a sign that you’re consuming too much alcohol.
To treat swollen feet and ankles due to alcohol consumption, try these tips:
- increase water intake
- reduce salt intake
- rest with your leg elevated
- soak feet in cool water
Swollen feet and ankles frequently occur during hot weather since your veins expand as part of your body’s natural cooling process.
Fluids, including blood, go into nearby tissues as part of this process. However, sometimes your veins aren’t able to bring blood back to the heart. This results in fluid collecting in the feet and ankles. People with circulatory problems are especially prone to this.
Here are some home remedies to reduce swelling during hot weather:
- drink plenty of water
- rest with legs elevated
- soak feet in cool water
- wear shoes that allow feet to breathe and move freely
- exercise legs with regular walks and simple leg exercises
In many cases, you can treat a swollen foot, ankle, or leg at home. Home management will depend on the cause.
If your swelling is the result of fluid buildup, the following home tips may help relieve swelling:
- reduce your salt intake
- lie down with your feet and legs higher than your heart.
- practice the Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose
- wear compression stockings
- take diuretics
If your swelling is due to injury, remember R.I.C.E. but consult with a doctor regarding how much activity your leg should get.
Medical condition management
If you have a medical condition that can lead to swelling, take your medications and manage your symptoms carefully. If you have congestive heart failure or kidney disease, you may need to limit the amount of fluid you take in each day.
While you can’t always prevent injuries during physical activity, warming up first can help. This includes a walk or light jog before engaging in vigorous physical activity.
Choose supportive footwear. Proper shoes can help correct gait issues and 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 apply pressure to your lower leg. In some cases, this can help prevent and alleviate ankle and foot swelling caused by certain conditions, such as:
- deep vein thrombosis
- varicose veins
- venous insufficiency
Check with your doctor before using compression socks for your swelling, because these special socks should be properly fitted for you and your needs. Wear them during the day and remove them before you go to bed.
A low-sodium diet discourages fluid retention. Fast food often contains large amounts of sodium which can contribute to retaining fluids. Many frozen meals and canned soups often contain excess sodium, so read food labels carefully.
If you stand a lot during the day, try wearing compression stockings at work and propping your feet up or soaking them in water when you get home to help prevent swelling.
There are many reasons for a swollen foot, ankle, or leg. It’s usually the result of fluid buildup or your body’s response to an injury or infection. Sometimes, it can be a sign of a serious condition that requires medical attention.
A doctor can run tests to determine a diagnosis and treatment plan. If you don’t have a primary care doctor or need help finding a specialist, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.