Swollen feet may be painful, uncomfortable, and can make it hard to walk. Swollen feet happen for a variety of reasons. Several medical conditions may cause the symptom. Luckily, once you know the underlying cause of swollen feet, you can take steps to feel better. Read on to learn more about the most common conditions that cause feet to swell up.
Edema is a condition in which the body retains too much water. This can make parts of the body, including the arms, legs, hands, face, and feet, swell. What is the cause of edema? It may be caused by a variety of medical conditions. Standing for long periods of time may provoke edema. Taking a long plane trip can trigger fluid retention. Some women notice edema during their monthly period. Edema may be caused by more serious underlying conditions including liver disease, kidney disease, heart failure, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), low protein levels in the blood, and other conditions.
A swollen foot may be a sign of an injury to the foot or lower leg. Broken toes, ankle sprains, ankle strains, and broken bones are just a few injuries that may result in swelling. Swelling is a normal response to injury. Inflammation facilitates healing. If you are injured so badly that it causes a lot of pain, you cannot put weight on your foot, or the area looks very abnormal, seek immediate medical attention.
Many women experience swollen legs and feet during pregnancy. Standing for long periods of time and being physically active may contribute to swelling. Consuming too much salt and too little potassium may play a role as well. Some pregnant women notice that heat aggravates swelling. Usually, some swelling during pregnancy is expected and is not a cause for concern. However, severe swelling or sudden swelling may be a sign of a dangerous condition called preeclampsia. Alert your doctor immediately if severe or sudden swelling develop during pregnancy.
Some women who have swollen feet during pregnancy may have preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous condition that causes high blood pressure. Untreated preeclampsia can damage the kidneys and liver, and it can even be deadly. Other symptoms of preeclampsia include nausea, headache, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, blurred vision, abdominal pain, and water retention. Preeclampsia develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. If you experience these symptoms, report them to your doctor immediately.
Lymphedema is a condition that results in fluid build-up when the lymph system of the body is blocked or damaged. Cancer and cancer treatment are two potential causes of lymphedema. When lymph fluid is trapped, your legs, feet, and arms may swell. Certain exercises can help move lymph throughout the body. Lymphatic massage is another treatment for lymphedema. A pneumatic compression device is a machine that pumps air into a sleeve placed over an arm or a leg. The pressure exerted on the limb facilitates the movement of lymph and helps relieve swelling.
Blood travels back to the heart with the help of one-way valves in veins that assist the forward movement of blood. These valves may become damaged with aging or when people sit or stand for long periods of time. Damaged valves may cause chronic venous insufficiency, a condition in which blood pools in the lower legs, causing swelling in the legs and feet. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is another common cause of chronic venous insufficiency. Tumors and vascular malformations are other less common causes of chronic venous insufficiency.
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart does not pump blood efficiently. This results in impaired blood flow, and blood may pool in the legs and feet. Heart failure makes it uncomfortable to lie down flat. It also causes the heart to beat more rapidly or even in an abnormal rhythm. People with heart failure may feel like they cannot catch their breath. Heart failure is a serious condition. See your doctor right away if you develop concerning heart symptoms.
Your kidneys are bean-shaped organs that filter your blood and help regulate blood pressure. Diabetes and high blood pressure may affect kidney function, resulting in electrolyte imbalances in your blood that can lead to fluid retention. Gravity draws excess water in your body downward, so your lower legs and feet may become swollen.
Like the kidneys, the liver performs a critical function for the body by filtering waste products from the blood. Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) or damage to the liver from drinking alcohol may cause scarring (cirrhosis). This can impair the liver's ability to function. When the liver is not able to do its job, fluid may accumulate in the abdomen, legs, and feet. Areas that have excess fluid may appear swollen.
There are many potential underlying causes for swollen feet. Luckily, there are also a lot of things you can do to get some relief. RICE is an acronym that stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. These strategies are especially useful if your foot is swollen due to an injury like a sprain or broken bone, but it may provide some relief for feet that are swollen due to other reasons. Ice constricts blood vessels and limits blood flow to the area. Ice also helps alleviate pain. Elevating your feet encourages the flow of fluids away from the area. Compression stockings or a snug bandage discourage fluid from pooling in the feet. Resting and staying off your feet may help, too.
Moving around and exercising is one of the best things you can do to relieve swollen feet. Movement facilitates the flow of blood and lymph so it is less likely to pool in the legs. Exercise can help reduce swelling and increase strength after an injury to a foot or lower leg. Pumping your feet and rolling your ankles are good exercises to do to prevent deep vein thrombosis, a dangerous condition that causes swollen feet and legs. The exercises are good to do when you're on a long car trip or plane ride and can't get up and move around easily.
Swollen feet have a variety of potential underlying causes. Sometimes, medication can help relieve swollen feet. Conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes may be associated with water retention. In these cases, the doctor may prescribe a diuretic medication to help your body get rid of fluid that may be making your condition worse. Restricting your intake of sodium may help in these cases as well.
Swelling in your feet can sometimes be a symptom of something that is a medical emergency like a deep vein thrombosis or a blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolism). How do you know when it's time to get immediate medical attention? Seek emergent medical help if:
- you cannot catch your breath and/or you have chest pain;
- you have swelling and pain that is severe and is not getting better;
- you have swelling that is so bad that the skin is severely stretched out or even breaks; or
- you depress the skin on your swollen foot and it leaves a dimple.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Sprains, Strains and Other Soft-Tissue Injuries.”
- American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society: “How to Care for a Sprained Ankle.”
- American Pregnancy Association: “Preeclampsia,” “Swelling During Pregnancy.”
- Clinics in Sports Medicine: “Rehabilitation of Ankle and Foot Injuries in Athletes.”
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care: “Causes and Signs of Edema.”
- National Cancer Institute: “Diuretic,” “Lymphedema (PDQ®) – Patient Version.”
- National Kidney Foundation: “About Chronic Kidney Disease.”
- Western Journal of Medicine: “Swollen Lower Limb: General Assessment and Deep Vein Thrombosis.”