Edema, also known as swelling, happens when fluid accumulates in your body's tissues. Although this can occur anywhere in your body, it's particularly common in the feet and legs. Swollen feet can be a symptom of all sorts of ailments, from a broken leg to heart issues. So, depending on the underlying cause, you'll need to take different steps to address the swelling in your feet and legs.
As a general rule, the use of compression socks during the day and elevation at night may help to reduce foot swelling caused by blood circulation issues. In this article, we'll review common causes and solutions for swelling in the feet and legs; however, it's important to seek advice from a medical professional when you experience severe or unexplained swelling, especially if it's accompanied by shortness of breath, fever, or other symptoms.
What Causes Swelling in the Feet & Legs?
Swelling can have many causes. Often, it occurs when fluid leaks from your blood vessels into the surrounding tissue. Edema may be a symptom of a serious condition, or it might be a normal reaction to a day on your feet.
Here are several of the most common causes:
Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI)
We have one-way valves inside our veins that keep deoxygenated blood flowing in the right direction. When a person has CVI, those valves fail so that blood begins to flow backwards. As a result, blood pools in the feet and lower legs, causing vein walls to distend. Mild edema is one of the first signs of venous insufficiency. As CVI progresses, it can cause spider veins, varicose veins, severe edema, and venous ulcers (sores).
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
If you develop a blood clot in your deep vein, you may experience swelling in only one leg or foot. This can block your circulation and cause serious complications. In some cases, the blood clot can break off, travel through your bloodstream, and form a fatal blockage in your lung. Studies show that pregnancy, surgery, and long periods of immobility all increase your likelihood of developing DVT.
Lymphedema describes a condition where your lymph nodes do not function properly. In patients with lymphedema, excess fluid leaks from the lymph vessels into the surrounding tissues. It's common for people who are undergoing cancer treatment to have lymph nodes removed, which can lead to swelling. In other people, lymphedema is an inherited condition.
Preeclampsia is a disorder that causes high blood pressure and organ damage during pregnancy. Some of the symptoms include high blood pressure, protein in the urine, headaches, vision changes, shortness of breath, and swelling.
The gradual onset of swollen feet, without any other symptoms, is unlikely to be a sign of preeclampsia.
Liver or Kidney Disease
When your kidneys don't function properly, your blood develops an abnormally high concentration of salt. This causes you to retain water, resulting in foot and ankle edema. Meanwhile, liver disease can cause scar tissue that inhibits the flow of blood through the liver. This leads to poor circulation and puts pressure on the portal vein, so people with liver disease often experience swelling in the legs and feet.
When the heart is not strong enough to pump blood to the feet and back, blood can stagnate in the lower legs and feet. A heart attack, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea can all weaken the heart. Symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat.
Side Effects From Medication
All sorts of injuries can cause swelling in the feet and legs. For example, a sprained ankle may cause serious swelling and bruising. Phlebitis, or damage to a vein, can cause discomfort and swelling. Plantar fasciitis, an overuse injury to the plantar fascia, often leads to swelling and pain in the foot. Even blisters may cause discomfort, infection, and swelling, particularly if they become infected.
Options to Reduce Swelling
Some of the conditions related to edema in the feet and legs require immediate medical treatment. Your swelling may be caused by an underlying medical condition. If that's the case, you'll need to treat the medical condition to find relief from edema.
For minor injuries, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, work to decrease tension and swelling. If you suffer from heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, or another serious medical condition, your doctor may recommend medications to help you manage or reduce your symptoms.
A diet high in salt can lead to bloating and water retention. Cutting back on salt can eliminate swelling from fluid retention. Losing weight can also help to relieve swelling for some patients with diabetes, heart disease, or heart failure.
Surgery or Medical Procedures
If you suffer from certain vascular conditions, such as DVT or CVI, you may choose to undergo surgery to remove a blood clot or strip a varicose vein. Heart disease, liver disease, and kidney disease sometimes require surgery. Non-surgical medical procedures, such as sclerotherapy and laser treatment, can treat varicose and spider veins.
Elastic bandages, a compression bandage, wraps, or graduated compression socks, such as 15-25 mmHg Companions, provide one of the most inexpensive and versatile tools to prevent swelling. They can reduce the tension that contributes to overuse injuries, such as shin splints. They're a first-line option for the symptoms of CVI and lymphedema. If you're at risk for DVT, doctors recommend wearing graduated compression socks to reduce blood clots. Research indicates that they even reduce swelling from athletic exertion.
Elevating your legs works in a similar way to compression socks and stockings. You're giving your veins a boost, helping the returning flow of blood move from your feet to your heart. Since gravity sometimes causes blood to pool in the feet, elevating your legs may help to relieve the pressure on your circulatory system. This is also extremely helpful for an ankle injury, like strains.
How to Reduce Swelling in Your Feet
In addition to the treatment methods listed above, you can also try a few lifestyle changes to help reduce the stress on your feet. First, wear comfortable shoes, and avoid high heels. This may help you sidestep blisters and other overuse injuries.
How to Reduce Swelling in Your Legs
If your legs are prone to swelling, try to resist standing or sitting for long periods of time. Whenever possible, take breaks. This can help you to reduce your risk of vascular problems, such as DVT and CVI.
Also, since many of the conditions that cause swelling have a connection to cardiovascular health, it's important to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Salmon, olive oil, spinach, blueberries, and oats are particularly good for improving your vascular health.
Be sure to discuss any unexplained swelling with your doctor. In some cases, swollen feet and legs can be the first sign of a condition that requires immediate medical attention. When you treat the medical condition, you may find that your edema disappears. If it doesn't, and your doctor confirms that you're in good health, you can usually find relief through a combination of compression socks, elevation, NSAIDs, and epsom baths.