Leg swelling is a sign of fluid buildup or inflammation of the tissues or joints of the leg. A medical term for this swelling is edema. Swelling in the legs can be caused by many different things:
- Gravity: Especially from sitting or standing in one place for too long (like on long airplane flights).
- Injury: Leg, ankle or foot trauma such as a broken bone, muscle, ligament; cartilage injury; or a repetitive stress injury.
- Inflammatory, infectious and autoimmune conditions: Including bursitis, gout, infection, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, septic arthritis, sunburn, and systemic lupus erythematosus.
- Medications: Antidepressants, such as tricyclics and MAO inhibitors, hormone therapy, diabetes medications, high blood pressure medications, and steroids.
- Pregnancy: The uterus puts pressure on the large veins in the pelvis (vena cava). Fluid retention during pregnancy also can be caused by a more serious condition called preeclampsia.
- Being Overweight: Increases your risk for edema from many different causes and can be a primary cause of lymphedema.
- Disease: Leg swelling can also be a sign of certain diseases—such as congestive heart failure, lung, liver, kidney, or thyroid diseases. These conditions can be serious and if accompanied by shortness of breath or chest pain, one should seek medical attention.
- Low protein: Low protein levels in the blood caused by malnutrition. The proteins help to hold salt and water inside the blood vessels so fluid does not leak out into the tissues. If a blood protein, called albumin, gets too low, watery fluid leaks from the vessels into the tissues and edema occurs, especially in the feet, ankles and lower legs.
- Blood clot in the vein in the leg (deep venous thrombosis): Will cause swelling of that leg. If a piece of the blood clot travels to the lungs (pulmonary embolism) it can be life threatening. For new swelling that affects one leg and is painful or causes shortness of breath you should seek medical attention emergently.
Treatment of Leg Swelling
Treatment of edema focuses on correcting the underlying cause of the fluid accumulation. For swollen ankles and feet caused by pregnancy, elevate your legs and avoid lying on your back to help improve blood flow and decrease swelling. Tips that may help leg swelling that can be used at home include: raising the leg above the heart while lying down; exercising the leg; follow a low salt diet; wear support stockings; during plane flights, stand often and move around; avoid tight clothing or garters or any other garment that might constrict the leg; and finally, if necessary, lose weight.
Chronic Leg Swelling Caused by Venous Insufficiency
Swelling caused by a blood clot in the leg can become chronic, because the blood clot will often cause permanent damage to the valves in the veins of the leg. Normally, valves in your deeper leg veins keep your blood flowing back toward the heart so it does not collect in one place. But valves damaged by blood clots cause the veins to stay filled with blood, especially when you are standing. This type of edema is called venous insufficiency, varicose veins, or post phlebitic syndrome. Sometimes the valves in the legs can also be missing or defective (valves don’t close all the way and blood leaks backwards). This will also cause venous insufficiency, varicose veins, and edema.
In addition to swelling/edema, the symptoms of venous insufficiency include:
- Dull aching, heaviness, or cramping in legs
- Itching and tingling of the skin
- Pain that gets worse when standing
- Pain is relieved when legs are elevated above the heart
People with chronic venous insufficiency may also have:
- Redness of the legs and ankles
- Skin color changes around the ankles
- Varicose veins on the surface (superficial)
- Thickening and hardening of the skin on the legs and ankles (lipodermatosclerosis)
- Ulcers on the legs and ankles
Treatment for Venous Insufficiency
There is no direct cure for venous insufficiency. Once the valves are damaged or missing they cannot be replaced or repaired. The treatment for venous insufficiency is compression. By compressing/squeezing the legs the right way, with the right amount of pressure you are able to decrease the venous pressure which: reduces the swelling, prevents new swelling, prevents ulcers from occurring, and allows ulcers to heal. Compression is needed for a lifetime. There are many different types of compression wraps and compression garments to choose from. It takes a trained doctor or nurse practitioner to choose the right compression type for each patient. During the treatment phase (when there is swelling and or wounds present) it is necessary for compression wraps to be re-applied regularly to manage the wounds and minimize swelling. After the swelling is gone and the ulcer is healed then the maintenance phase of compression is determined, which is usually medical grade compression stockings. However, there are many different brands and types of compression stockings. This can be confusing as to what will work the best for you. Physician Wound Care Specialists of Utah can help you by choosing what will work the best.
No matter what the cause of edema, any swollen area of the body should be protected from pressure, injury and extreme temperatures. The skin over swollen legs becomes more fragile over time. Cuts, scrapes and burns in areas that have edema take much longer to heal and are more likely to get infected.
It is important to visit your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent swelling or other unusual symptoms. Because leg swelling can be a symptom of a life-threatening condition, you should seek prompt medical care and talk with your medical professional about your symptoms. If you experience leg swelling with chest pain, dizziness, confusion, shortness of breath, or any difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical care (call 911).
ABOUT GROVE PHARMACY
When you need your prescription filled or a customized compounded formulation, Grove Pharmacy, located in Springfield, in southwest Missouri, has two convenient locations and a dedicated, caring staff ready to serve you. Locally-owned and managed by the Grove family since 1952, we provide personalized dispensing services, medication counseling, and custom prescription compounding services in our state-of-the-art compounding cleanroom. With FREE local home & workplace delivery to Springfield residents and UPS and U.S. Mail shipping throughout the United States, we can meet all of your medication needs. We also have a bilingual, Spanish-speaking pharmacist on staff to help our valued Latino customers.