Discovering that your feet or ankles are suddenly swollen can be alarming. But swollen feet and ankles are a common problem, and it’s caused by many different issues. Sometimes this swelling isn’t too concerning, but other times it can indicate a serious health problem if it occurs frequently.
Why does it happen? Swollen feet and ankles signify a buildup of fluid in your soft tissues. This fluid is blood plasma, which is basically water, leaking into the surrounding tissues.1 Usually, your lymphatic system removes this excess fluid naturally. But if something’s preventing it from functioning effectively, the fluid will build up.
The medical term for this kind of swelling is peripheral edema, and it’s much more common in the lower regions of the body due to the pull of gravity. It’s also far more common in older adults.2 Though uncomfortable, fluid buildup isn’t usually painful.
What Causes Swollen Feet and Ankles?
Many conditions can cause swollen feet and ankles. Here are some of the most common:
1. Carrying too much weight
Carrying around too much weight can decrease the circulation in your body, especially the lower regions of your body, which are supporting the weight. This decreased circulation means that your blood is no longer pumping as efficiently as it should be. As a result, fluid may build up in your ankles and feet.
2. Standing or sitting for long periods
Whether you live an inactive lifestyle or are simply required to sit or stand for your job, your muscles can struggle to pump fluid around your body when they’re not being used.
This is common on long flights, where you’re sitting motionless for hours at a time. Whether you’re on a plane, at a desk, or standing at a counter, it’s best to move around every few hours to better assist your circulation.
3. Foot/Ankle injuries
Injuring your foot or ankle can cause swelling, as it’s your body’s natural reaction to injury. This type of swelling often comes on immediately, as your body kickstarts the healing process, sending a lot of blood to the area.
The best way to treat an ankle or foot injury is to employ the R.I.C.E strategy:3
- Rest the injury
- Ice the area
- Wear Compression socks or bandages
- Use Elevation to raise the injury higher than the heart
This will help to reduce swelling and strengthen the healing process. If your injury is preventing you from day-to-day activities you should visit your doctor for further analysis.
Pregnancy generally causes swelling in the feet and ankles for the same reasons as being overweight – compressed circulation. The excess weight is preventing proper circulation to your feet.
But sometimes, fluid retention in pregnancy can be due to more serious issues, like preeclampsia. This type of swelling usually comes on quite fast, and it’s due to sudden high blood pressure. You should see a doctor immediately in this case, as preeclampsia is potentially life-threatening to both mother and child.4
Sometimes, the medication you’re taking can be blamed for swelling in the feet and ankles. This can happen for many reasons – i.e. the medication may relax certain muscles, or make it harder to rid the body of sodium. Both of which can cause swelling.
- Blood pressure medications
- Hormones, like birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- Steroidal medications
If you suspect that your medication is causing uncomfortable swelling, don’t stop taking the medication. Instead, talk to your doctor.
6. Blood Clots
A blood clot can cause swelling because it increases pressure in the area, pushing fluid out into your tissues. Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, is a particularly dangerous blood clot that you should be aware of. You’re at a higher risk of getting DVT if you’re:
- Have a history of DVT
- Have a kidney condition
- Older (over 60)
- Taking contraceptive pills6
DVT may be accompanied by distinct leg pain, redness, and a feeling of warmth in your leg.
The best way to avoid a serious blood clot is to stay active, especially if you fit any of the above profiles. If you need to sit for long periods, like on a long flight, try to get up and move around the cabin every couple of hours. You can also pump your feet up and down while seated. This keeps fluid moving around the body.
Lymphedema is a blockage of the lymphatic system, which is actually part of your immune system. Lymphatic fluid carries the white, infection-fighting blood cells throughout your body. The lymph nodes control this transportation. So, when your lymph nodes aren’t working correctly, the fluid can’t drain efficiently, and you get swelling.8
Lymphedema can be inherited or brought about by illness or infection.9 It’s essential that you see your doctor to best tackle this condition.
Managing Swollen Feet and Ankles
Here are a few key ways to manage your swollen feet and ankles in the short term:
- Get Moving: Move your body regularly to get your circulation pumping efficiently.
- Use compression socks: These prevent fluid collecting in your legs, ankles, and feet and are highly recommended for long flights.
- Elevate your feet: Getting your feet above your heart level is an easy remedy to ease swelling. Use cushions, or lie on the floor with your legs up against a wall.
- Lose weight: If you’re carrying less weight, your circulation has less of a chance of getting “pinched” off below the waist.
- Supplements: Magnesium supplements have shown to help fluid retention in some people.10 But consult your doctor about this first.
- Visit your physician: Understanding what is causing your fluid retention is the most important step of all.
Because swelling can be related to more serious issues, it’s always wise to visit your doctor for a checkup if you’re frequently experiencing swollen feet and ankles. They can help you to find the source of the swelling, and implement a strategy to best overcome it.