Leg swelling

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 7, 2015
StartSymptomsLeg swelling

Various varieties of leg swelling are a very common medical condition in the United States and throughout the world. While some cases amount to no more than a minor irritation, others are very severe and can lead to other even more severe conditions if left untreated.


Definition & Facts

Any swelling in the thighs, legs, calves, ankles, or feet can be covered by the umbrella term "leg swelling." The condition is recognized by such symptoms, aside from enlargement of the swollen area, as redness, irritating itches, blistering, rashes, skin ulcers, leg numbness, and shortness of breath.

The whole limb or any part of it may swell, and the swollen tissue can be muscle, fat, or blood vessels. The swelling may be visible result of a lack of proper drainage due to a malfunctioning lymphatic system, but it can also be a matter of increased vein pressure and inflammations.


There are a multitude of possible causes of leg swelling, and you should always consult your doctor to verify the exact cause. However, some of the most common causes will be looked at briefly below. First, continuously standing or sitting still for long periods of time, often in a workplace setting, is a major cause.

In other cases, there may be a serious, chronic disorder, such as heart disease or a blood clot. When the swelling is caused by fluid build-up, "peripheral edema," the problem is often attributable to a circulatory, lymphatic, or kidney disorder. Some specific factors that increase risk of peripheral edema include, among many others, deep vein thrombosis, acute or chronic kidney failure, cirrhosis, which is a scarred liver, lymphedema, which is a blockage of the lymphatic system, and various kinds of heart disease.

When leg swelling results from inflamed tissues, it may well be the result of an injury or of a disease like rheumatoid arthritis, and it will be very painful. Other factors leading to inflammation-related leg swelling include Achilles tendon rupture, osteoarthritis, bursitis of the knee, and a skin infection known as cellulitis.

When to see a doctor

In general, seek immediate medical attention whenever leg swelling occurs for unknown reasons or when it is associated with chest pain, shortness of breath, a blood clot in the lungs, or a serious heart problem. Also, if fainting, dizziness, or a recent injury of any kind is involved, waste no time in obtaining emergency care.

When it is less than an emergency, you may still need to schedule an appointment with your physician, and you should not wait very long to do so. If you suspect that the swelling in your leg is related to a kidney disorder or is a side effect of some medication you are taking, you should also be quick to make a doctor's appointment. You should not cease to take the suspect medication before seeing your doctor, however, you may be able to take an over the counter pain reliever without delay.

Also, take actions to lessen the swelling even before seeing your doctor. For example, you can take frequent breaks if you must sit or stand for prolonged periods and place a pillow below your legs while lying down.

Treatment & Therapy

There are many methods used to treat leg swelling. One of the most common things that physicians will try first is to prescribe diuretics, which are essentially "water pills".

As this kind of treatment does not work in all cases, another method is to apply counter-pressures to the swollen areas. This can be accomplished by using compression stockings that push fluid out of your legs, which is often the most effective approach. It can also, however, be accomplished by using decongestive massage therapies to push out the excess fluid. The latter is frequently used when lymphedema is the cause and is done in conjunction with special exercises and a low-pressure compression wrap.

More intense physical therapies will typically be assigned when leg swelling is the result of arthritis or obesity. In this case, the calf muscles cannot push out excess fluids during walking, and intense leg exercises may be needed to correct the problem at its root. Finally, there are times when people with mild cases of leg swelling opt not to treat it at all.

This usually occurs with the elderly or anyone who finds it a major struggle to simply put on a compression stocking. In mild cases, this may be all right, but one should still keep in contact with his or her doctor to make sure the condition does not worsen.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

There are many lifestyle factors that can help to prevent leg swelling. First, you can avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time without having your legs elevated. Whenever you go on a car trip, you should get out and walk for a few minutes every hour or two.

When flying, try to get up and walk the aisle when permissible every couple hours and to raise your knees or legs when possible. Another factor is to limit salt consumption, exercise on a regular basis, and drink plenty of water. Also be sure to always warm up adequately before exercises or strenuous physical activity. When in a hot, humid environment, do all you can to keep your skin cool and dry. Avoid overly repetitive movements as much as possible and take frequent breaks to rest your legs.

Also note that smoking increasing risk of leg swelling because it causes circulatory problems and that taking prescription medications contrary to your doctor's instructions can contribute to swelling. Finally, be aware that chronic medical conditions and pregnancy can cause leg swelling, and see your doctor if this occurs. Your doctor may prescribe you a prophylaxis, which is a treatment used to prevent rather than to cure a problem, to cut down on the chances of leg swelling. The prophylaxis may be compression stockings or an antiplatelet drug such as aspirin. These measures will help reduce fluid retention or inflammation to keep your legs from getting swollen.