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Leg Swelling


Swelling of the ankle and feet is a very frequent symptom. Almost all adults experience it to some degree at some point in their lives.  By itself, leg swelling does not represent a disease but rather the symptom of an underlying disease. Swelling or peripheral edema occurs when something disrupts the usual balance of fluids in your cells. As a result, an abnormal amount of fluid accumulates in your tissues. Gravity pulls the fluid down into your legs and feet.

Peripheral edema is common in older adults and pregnant women, but it can occur at any age and may affect one leg or both.

Depending on the underlying cause, other symptoms may include: 

  • Tightness and pain in the calf or warmth which may make it hard for you to walk
  • Difficulty putting on stockings or shoes
  • Pitting (when you press on your skin for about five seconds, your finger leaves an indentation in the skin)
  • Gaining weight from the fluid increase
  • Heaviness in the legs as the day progresses (see: Varicose Veins)
  • Discoloration of the skin above the ankle
  • Breakdown of the skin (see: Leg Ulcers)
  • Increasing shortness of breath with minimal activity


What causes leg swelling?

Leg swelling may be due to a variety of causes:

  • Dependent swelling (edema)
  • Pregnancy
  • Medications
  • Injuries
  • Chronic Diseases (like congestive heart failure, alcoholism, and liver failure)
  • Infections like cellulitis of the skin
  • Venous insufficiency (see: Varicose Veins)
  • Lymphedema (inability of lymph glands to clear water from the legs)
  • Blood clots (see: Deep Vein Thrombosis DVT)
  • After knee or hip surgery


What can I do to help the swelling?

Treatment of swollen feet and ankles is dependent on diagnosing the underlying cause; some people require no treatment besides simple measures to reduce the swelling, while others with underlying cause may require several different treatments.

The following simple measures will help reduce the swelling:

  1. Position yourself on your back, elevate your feet and ankles higher than heart using heavy pillows or blankets for 30 minutes at least four times a day or when you are able to.
  2. Slowly flexing and extending your ankle as further back as you can (like you are slowly stepping on a pedal) in sets of ten every two hours will help the veins transport the excess fluid back to the heart.


When will the swelling go away?

In general, if your edema subsides overnight, it indicates a milder cause like having been on your legs for a long period of time. If the swelling persists beyond 48 hours, it may indicate a more serious cause and consulting with your physician may help identify the cause and alleviate your concerns.


When should I call my doctor?

You should call 911 if you have leg swelling and any of the following signs or symptoms,

which may indicate a blood clot in your lungs or a serious heart condition:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath with exertion or lying flat in bed
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Coughing blood

You should also call your doctor or seek urgent care if your leg swelling:

  • Occurs suddenly and for no apparent reason
  • Is related to a physical injury, such as from a fall, a sports injury or a car accident
  • Occurs in one leg and is painful, or is accompanied by cool, pale skin
  • If you have heart or kidney disease and or your swelling is getting worse


What will my doctor do?

Your doctor will take a medical history and do a thorough physical examination, paying special attention to your heart, lungs, abdomen, legs, and feet.

Some of the questions your provider might ask are:

  • Where is the swelling? Which body part is affected? Your ankles, feet, legs?
  • Do you have swelling all the time or is it worse in the evening?
  • What makes it better? What makes it worse?
  • Does the swelling get better when you elevate your legs?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Do you have a history of blood clots in your legs or lungs?
  • Do you have varicose veins?

Your provider may initiate a workup with some tests and will then tailor the treatment towards the underlying cause.

If your doctor suspects a circulatory problem, he may refer you to one of our vascular specialists who will gladly help you resolve your swelling and care for your vascular health.

To book an appointment with us, please give us a call or complete our appointment request form.


South Charlotte General and Vascular Surgery
13430 Hoover Creek Blvd
Charlotte, NC 28273
Phone: 704-459-3028
Fax: 704-710-8045

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