There are many reasons — ranging from “no big deal” to “quite serious” — that your lower legs, ankles, and feet might become swollen. Most problems that trigger lower leg swelling are associated with one of two underlying conditions: fluid buildup or inflammation.
Although leg swelling that resolves itself in a day or two isn’t usually cause for concern, lower extremity swelling that comes and goes or persists over time often indicates a more worrying health condition — one which likely requires prompt expert evaluation, diagnosis, and care.
Here, our skilled team of board-certified experts at Vascular Vein Centers explores the many possible causes of leg swelling and explains when this common problem should motivate you to schedule a visit at our office ASAP.
Leg swelling signs and symptoms
Lower extremity swelling is a common concern, especially among older adults. Moderate-to-severe leg swelling is easy to spot: You may suddenly have “cankles” (calf-ankles) instead of well-defined ankles, your shoes may feel uncomfortably tight, or you may notice obvious skin changes that make your skin appear puffy, shiny, or stretched.
Mild leg swelling can be a bit harder to discern. Tell-tale signs of mild lower extremity swelling include indentations left on your skin when you remove your socks and skin that retains your fingermark for several seconds after you gently press it.
Is it fluid buildup or inflammation?
There are two fundamental mechanisms behind most cases of leg swelling, and it’s often possible to differentiate between the two based on whether it’s painless or painful.
Leg swelling from fluid retention
Swelling caused by the buildup of fluids in your leg tissues is known as peripheral edema. This typically painless condition can be the result of a temporary problem such as:
- Standing mostly still for long stretches
- Sitting for long stretches (air or car travel)
- Wearing overly tight stockings or pants
Persistent or recurrent peripheral edema — which also tends to be painless — may be a side effect of pregnancy, obesity, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, certain medications, or even a high-sodium diet. It may also be a sign there’s something seriously wrong, such as:
- Chronic kidney disease and/or acute kidney failure
- Heart disease (cardiomyopathy, heart failure, pericarditis)
- Lymphedema, or a blockage in the lymphatic system
- Thrombophlebitis, including deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), or poor circulation
Chronic peripheral edema can also be a symptom of pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure that affects the artery leading from the lungs to the right side of the heart.
Inflammation-related leg swelling
Leg swelling can also be a symptom of inflammation in your lower extremity joints or tissues, either as a normal response to injury or disease, or it can be caused by an inflammatory disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis. Most of the time, inflammation-related leg swelling is accompanied by some degree of pain or discomfort.
Common causes of lower extremity inflammation and swelling include:
- Sprained or broken ankle
- Achilles tendon injuries
- Bone fracture in the leg or foot
- Knee sprains or other injuries
- Lower leg muscle strains
- Knee, ankle, or foot bursitis
- Cellulitis (infection of the skin)
Often, persistent inflammation-related leg swelling that isn’t caused by an obvious injury is a product of arthritis — usually osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) or rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease).
When to see a doctor for leg swelling
If you experience noticeable leg swelling after spending several hours on your feet, and if that swelling eases substantially when you rest and elevate your legs, it probably isn’t cause for too much concern. In general, you should come see our vascular experts as soon as possible if your leg swelling:
- Lasts longer than a day or two
- Happens to you frequently
- Affects just one of your legs
- Occurs along a varicose vein
Leg swelling that’s accompanied by pain or tenderness, skin that’s red or warm to the touch, and visibly enlarged veins may be an indication of DVT, or a deep vein blood clot that requires prompt evaluation and care to reduce your risk of experiencing a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. If you have these symptoms, call our DVT Hotline at 833-687-6887 right away.
Seek prompt medical attention if your leg swelling:
- Happens suddenly and for no obvious reason
- Is most likely related to an acute physical injury
Seek immediate emergency care if your leg swelling is accompanied by:
- Chest pain and difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath during exertion
- Shortness of breath when lying down
- Lightheadedness, fainting, or dizziness
Remember, persistent or recurrent lower extremity swelling isn’t always a medical emergency, but it is always cause for concern — leg swelling that occurs as a side effect of a prescription medication looks just like leg swelling that stems from a serious circulatory problem or kidney disorder.
Expert evaluation with IAC accredited diagnostic ultrasound imaging is key to pinpointing the underlying problem and getting you the care you need to protect your health.
If you’re experiencing persistent leg swelling, call or click online to schedule an appointment at your nearest Vascular Vein Centers office right away. We have six Central Florida locations in Orlando, Waterford Lakes of East Orlando, Kissimmee, Davenport/Haines City, Lake Mary, and The Villages, Florida.