Swollen Feet, Ankles and Legs
A number of people have inquired lately about swollen legs and ankles - what does it mean when someone's legs swell, and what to do about it. With warmer weather coming this will be a common question for many caregivers.
Please bear with me while I make the usual disclaimer: I am not a physician and this elementary summary is intended to encourage you to consult a physician for medical and treatment advice.
Like so many other things, swollen legs (edema) is a symptom, not a disease. So the first thing to do is try to find the underlying cause of the swelling.
If I remember correctly from biology class, our bodies are normally composed of about 98% water. Every cell in our body contains water, and water constantly moves between the bloodstream and the spaces between the cells (interstitial spaces). Anything that interferes with the movement of this fluid can cause the water to build up (water retention). The heart is the pump that keeps things moving throughout the system.
Gravity plays a part in the development of edema. We've all heard the advice about trying on shoes in the late afternoon. If a person has been standing or sitting for a long period of time, especially in warm weather, body fluid can settle in the lower legs, ankles and feet, causing swelling.
A person with congestive heart failure has a heart that no longer pumps as efficiently as it should. The reduced efficiency of the body's pump can cause the blood, and the water it carries, to build up in the lower extremities, causing edema. A short list of other things that can cause swelling of the legs include liver, kidney or lymphatic disorders, blood clots, insect bites, bacterial infections, malnutrition, allergies, and of course pregnancy.
If you haven't consulted a doctor about swelling in your legs or feet, and the swelling is more than just mild and occasional, you should do so. Because swollen legs, ankles and feet can be a symptom of so many different things, you need to find out why this is happening so that the underlying cause can be treated.
In the meantime, before your appointment, you can do a few things that may help:
Managing Swollen Legs & Feet While You Wait For An Appointment
• Several times a day elevate your legs so that your feet are higher than your heart. During the day a recliner is excellent for this. If you don't have a recliner, use a footstool or lie on the sofa. Put a wedge or a sofa cushion between the mattress and box spring on your bed to elevate your feet when you sleep.
• Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time. Get up and move around every hour or so during the day.
• Nix the salt. Salt may not be the culprit, but it can't hurt to avoid salty foods and leave salt out when you cook. If you see a difference in the amount your feet swell, this is good information for your doctor.
• Exercise. Moving around causes your muscles to contract and release, which helps circulation. It makes you feel better, too.
• Until you have seen a doctor don't take over-the-counter "water pills," and don't take any prescription diuretics that have been prescribed for someone else.
• Don't use heavy duty support hose without being instructed by a physician. These come in various degrees of constriction, and you don't want to be causing other problems by pushing fluid back up to your heart. For this same reason, don't wrap your legs tightly unless you've been instructed by a doctor, and don't wear tight socks, shoes or garters.
When Swollen Legs & Feet Could Be An Urgent Problem:
Call your doctor right away if:
• Only one leg is swollen
• The swollen area is red or warm to the touch
• You have liver or kidney disease and have sudden swelling
in your legs or abdomen
• You have a fever
• You are not making the normal amount of urine
• You have a sudden increase in the amount of swelling
in your legs and feet.
And, of course, call 911 if:
• You are short of breath
• You have chest pain, pressure, or a tight feeling