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Swollen Legs and Ankles - Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Swollen Legs and Ankles - Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

4 min read


Did you know that ankles and feet swelling can be signs of heart or kidney disease? Read about the possible causes, accompanying symptoms, and treatment options.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. C. Elanchezhian

Published At October 18, 2019
Reviewed AtAugust 19, 2022


Leg and ankle swelling, otherwise called peripheral edema, occurs when fluids get accumulated in these body parts. Unless it results from trauma, this accumulation of fluid is painless. It can occur at any age, but older adults are more prone. The swelling can be unilateral or bilateral, depending on the cause. Due to gravity, swelling in the legs and ankles are more visible.

Swelling after an injury is because of inflammation, but swelling in the lower extremities without any apparent cause can be a sign of some serious underlying health condition. So get immediate medical help if you notice swelling in your ankles or feet. Peripheral edema is usually treated by treating the underlying condition, or with the help of medication to remove excess fluid and by following a low-salt diet.

How Do Swollen Ankles and Feet Look?

The symptoms of peripheral edema are:

  • The skin appears shiny or stretchy.

  • A pit is formed on the skin when it is pressed for several seconds.

  • Visible swelling in the feet.

If you have shortness of breath, chest pain, or breathing difficulty along with edema, consult a doctor immediately as it can be due to pulmonary edema or deep vein thrombosis.

What Causes the Ankles and Feet to Swell Up?


Some of the common causes of ankle and foot swelling are:

1) Pregnancy - It is normal for pregnant women to have some swelling in the feet. But, sudden excessive swelling, maybe due to a condition called preeclampsia. It is a severe complication of pregnancy, which results from high blood pressure and protein in the urine during the third trimester. Symptoms like stomach pain, headaches, infrequent urination, vision problems, etc., along with feet and ankle swelling can be due to preeclampsia.

2) Injury - Any injury or trauma to the foot or ankle can cause swelling. Injuries like fractures, strains, sprains, etc., in the legs, results in swelling because of blood rushing to this area. To reduce swelling after an injury, follow the R (Rest) I (Ice) C (Compression) E (Elevation) approach.

3) Lymphedema - The collection of lymphatic fluid due to damage or removal of lymph nodes is called lymphedema. The lymphatic fluid is rich in protein and normally flows through the vessels of the lymphatic system, and is filtered through the lymph nodes. Any problem in this system can result in this condition. The other symptoms of lymphedema are feeling heaviness, pain, skin fibrosis, and repeated infections. It is common in cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, or patients who have gotten their lymph nodes removed.

4) Chronic venous insufficiency - It condition results from blood inadequately moving up the vessels from the legs to the heart due to prolonged sitting or standing or damage to the blood vessels. The valves in the veins that prevent blood from flowing upwards get damaged, which results in blood leaking back down and fluid retention in the soft tissue in the legs. The symptoms include leg pain, tiredness, varicose veins, itchy skin, and infections.

5) Blood clot - Blood clots in the veins of the legs can prevent the flow of blood from the legs to the heart, resulting in swelling. Blood clots in the deep veins of the leg (deep vein thrombosis) can block major veins, which can result in fatal complications. The other symptoms seen are leg pain, fever, and change in color of the leg. Treatment is usually done with blood thinners.

6) Infection - Foot infections can also swell up your feet and ankles. Diabetic patients with diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage due to high blood sugar) are more prone to foot infections. In such people, wounds in the feet from injury, insect bite, or blisters can cause severe infection. To prevent this, keep your blood sugar under control and learn how to care for your feet if you have diabetes.

7) Kidney disease - People with kidney impairment have too much salt in their blood, which results in water retention and swollen feet and ankles. The other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, fatigue, sleep disturbances, muscle twitching, itchy skin, increased urination, chest pain, and hypertension.

8) Liver disease - Liver diseases can lead to excess fluid in the legs and feet, resulting in swelling. Liver problems can be due to alcoholism, genetics, obesity, or viral infection. The symptoms include jaundice, itchy skin, dark urine, pale stool, tiredness, poor appetite, and easy bruising.

9) Heart failure - Heart failure is when the heart is unable to pump blood correctly. This causes swollen feet as the blood is not reaching the heart correctly. You may also experience symptoms like tachycardia (fast heartbeat), severe shortness of breath, chest pain, difficulty exercising, swollen abdomen, and severe weakness.

10) Certain medications - The side effect of some drugs is swelling in the feet and ankles. The common medicines include:

  • Hormonal drugs - Estrogen (oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy) and Testosterone.

  • Calcium channel blockers - Nifedipine, Amlodipine, and Diltiazem.

  • Corticosteroids - Prednisone.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

  • Antidiabetic medications.

  • Antidepressants - Nortriptyline, Amitriptyline.

  • Monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors - Phenelzine, Tranylcypromine.

11) Alcohol - The body retains more water after drinking, which results in edema. This type of swelling usually goes away in a few days.

12) Hot climate - In hot weather, the veins expand and fluids go into the nearby tissues to cool you off. But sometimes, these veins are unable to carry blood to the heart, which results in swelling.

13) Anemia - Severe anemia may cause pedal edema.

14) Hypothyroidism - Thyroid problems like hypothyroidism usually cause edema.

When to See a Doctor for Swollen Legs and Ankles?

Along with swelling, if you notice the following signs or symptoms, it is best you consult a doctor:

  • If the swollen areas feel warm.

  • If you have a known heart, kidney, or liver disease.

  • If you are diabetic.

  • If you are pregnant and see severe swelling.

  • If you have a fever.

  • If your swelling is not getting better with home remedies.

  • If you have chest pain, dizziness, confusion, and shortness of breath.

How Is the Cause of Swollen Feet and Ankles Diagnosed?

You might have to get the following test done to find the cause of edema:

  • Blood tests - To check your complete blood count (CBC), kidney function test, liver function test, thyroid function test, and levels of electrolytes.

  • X-ray - To look for fractures.

  • Ultrasound - To check the blood vessels, tissues, and internal organs.

  • Electrocardiogram - To check the heart function.

How Are Swollen Feet and Ankles Treated?

Your doctor will prescribe medicines after diagnosing the cause. They will prescribe antihypertensive medicines, antidiabetic medicines, diuretics, antibiotics (for infection), or any other medicine to treat the underlying cause.

Home Remedies:

  • Elevate your legs so that the legs are above the level of your heart.

  • Keep moving or stretching your leg.

  • Limit salt intake.

  • Do not wear clothes that restrict your thighs.

  • Maintain a healthy weight.

  • Wear compression socks.

  • Avoid sitting for a prolonged period, and keep getting up in the middle.

For more information, consult a doctor online.

Frequently Asked Questions


How to Get Rid of Swollen Legs and Ankles?

It is necessary to raise the legs above the level of the heart. You can use pillows to build them. Exercising your legs can be beneficial for the legs and ankles. Having a diet that is low in salt is known to reduce the level of swelling. Stockings can be worn to support the swelling.


What Are the Causes of Swollen Legs and Ankles?

The causes of swollen ankles and legs are:
- Obesity and overweight.
- Pregnancy.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
- Kidney failure.
- Heart problems.
- Infection in the leg.
- A blood clot in the leg.


Are Swollen Legs a Serious Condition?

Improper functioning of the organ system can cause building up of fluid in the legs. The kidney problems, heart failure, and liver diseases can result in the swelling or the edema. If there is swelling for a prolonged duration, you should consult your doctor immediately.


How Do You Get Rid of Swollen Legs Fast?

- Buy compression socks and wear them regularly.
- Drink eight to ten glasses of water each day.
- Elevate your feet, preferably above your heart.
- Soak your legs in a cold Epsom salt bath for about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Make some dietary changes.
- Magnesium supplements can be useful for some people.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Do not be dormant.


When Do You Need to Visit the Hospital for Swollen Feet and Legs?

You need to visit the hospital immediately if you notice any swelling in the leg for no reason. If the swelling is seen due to trauma, sports injury, and road accidents, it is necessary to get first aid done in a hospital. Since swelling of the leg is a sign of a systemic problem, it is good to get treatment as soon as possible.


What Are the Home Remedies for Swollen Legs?

The first and foremost thing to be done is to keep the feet in an elevated position above your heart. Wear compression socks most of the time. Soaking your legs in an Epsom salt solution can provide a soothing effect. Do not stand for a very long time. Eat a diet that is less in salt.


Are Swollen Legs an Indication of Heart Problems?

Yes, swelling legs are an indication of heart problems. In some specific cases, swelling in legs can indicate kidney problems also. The swelling of legs in cardiovascular conditions is due to the poor functioning of the heart. There will be a reduced blood flow and movement of blood into the veins in the leg. It can build up fluid in the tissues of the leg.


What Causes Swollen Legs From the Knee Down?

The swelling in the legs might show a build of fluid in the tissues. It can be a sign of a circulatory problem or any other heart disease. Swelling in the legs can happen in other conditions such as varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, and lymphedema. Dormant lifestyle and obese body can also result in swelling of the leg. In older people, standing for a very long time can also cause swelling in the legs. A sudden swelling might sometimes indicate kidney failure.


Does Drinking Water Help Swollen Ankles?

Drinking a lot of water will keep a person active. This will also keep an individual away from dehydration. There is no evidence to show that drinking water can help the swelling in the ankles. But, elevating your legs with the support of a soft pillow can also help.


Why Am I Retaining Water in My Legs?

Water can retain in the legs for an extended period in case of physical inactivity. If we sit in the same place for a long time, the tissue will tend to hold on the water content. This will result in the swelling. It will be mostly accompanied by pain in the affected area. Retaining of water in the legs is usually seen after a long travel in flight or car.


Can Dehydration Cause Swollen Ankles?

Dehydration happens due to insufficient water content in the body. As a result of dehydration, there will be constriction of blood vessels. This will lead to the entry of fluid to the extracellular spaces that exist between the cells. As the fluids are forced between the cells, it will end up in the retention of fluids in the lower limb.


Can High Blood Pressure Cause Swollen Ankles?

High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder than it is required before. Over the years, the additional effort can lead to the heart muscle becoming thicker and less efficient at pushing the blood around. This permits fluid to build up in the ankles and lower legs, which causes them to swell up.


What Should I Eat to Reduce Swelling in Feet?

Excess water in fruits can minimize foot swelling by flushing out excess water. Other vegetables, like asparagus and cucumber, are natural ingredients that eliminate water in the body. Consuming lots of water will also help the foot to reduce the swelling.


Are Swollen Feet a Sign of Diabetes?

A patient known to be affected by diabetes for a very long time is known to have swelling in the legs and ankles. The primary reason for swelling in a diabetic patient is obesity and poor circulation.


Can I Apply Heat to Swollen Ankles?

Applying warm compression on the area that has swelling is known to provide good relief. But, in some patients using heat can aggravate the swelling. If you notice this, then you should refrain from giving warm compression or heat compression.


Can Exercise Help Swollen Ankles?

Exercises can help in reducing the swelling of the ankles. Swimming is the best exercise for swelling in the ankles. All the exercises that do not involve weight-bearing activities can soothe the swelling in the leg.


Is Edema in the Legs Fatal?

Edema in the leg is not fatal all the time. But, if it occurs as a result of severe systemic problems, it can result in life-threatening symptoms. So, early treatment can help in healing the edema better.


What Are the Medications That Can Cause Swollen Ankles?

Calcium channel blockers. This is a type of blood pressure medication.
- Hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.
- Antidepressants.
- Steroids, including corticosteroids such as Prednisone.
- Diabetes medications.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
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Dr. C. Elanchezhian
Dr. C. Elanchezhian

General Medicine


ankle edema
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