What causes swelling in legs and ankles and how to treat it?

Symptom Database

Swelling in the legs and ankles can be a common occurrence and is often a result of various underlying causes. This condition, also known as edema or fluid retention, can be uncomfortable and may indicate an underlying health issue. Understanding the causes of swelling in the legs and ankles and how to treat it is essential for managing this symptom effectively.

What Causes Swelling in Legs and Ankles?

There are several factors that can contribute to swelling in the legs and ankles. Some of the common causes include:

  • Prolonged sitting or standing: Remaining in one position for an extended period can lead to fluid accumulation in the lower extremities.
  • Injury or trauma: Sprains, fractures, or other injuries to the legs or ankles can cause swelling as a natural response to inflammation.
  • Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and increased pressure on the veins during pregnancy can result in fluid retention and swelling.
  • Obesity: Excess weight can put additional pressure on the legs and ankles, leading to swelling.
  • Heart or kidney problems: Conditions such as congestive heart failure or kidney disease can cause fluid buildup in the body, leading to swelling in the legs and ankles.
  • Medications: Certain medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can cause fluid retention as a side effect.

Treating Swelling in Legs and Ankles

While it is important to address the underlying cause of swelling in the legs and ankles, there are several general measures that can help alleviate the discomfort and reduce the swelling:

Elevate the Legs

Raising the legs above heart level can help promote the drainage of excess fluid and reduce swelling. This can be done by propping the legs up on pillows while lying down or using a footstool while sitting.

Compression Stockings

Wearing compression stockings can provide gentle pressure on the legs, helping to prevent fluid buildup and reduce swelling. These stockings are available in various compression levels and should be fitted properly for maximum effectiveness.

Regular Exercise

Engaging in regular physical activity can help improve circulation and prevent fluid retention. Low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, or cycling are particularly beneficial for reducing swelling in the legs and ankles.

Healthy Diet

Avoiding excessive salt intake and consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help maintain a healthy fluid balance in the body. Additionally, staying hydrated by drinking an adequate amount of water can also aid in reducing swelling.


Gentle massage of the legs and ankles can help stimulate circulation and promote the drainage of excess fluid. Using upward strokes towards the heart can be particularly effective in reducing swelling.

Medical Interventions

If the swelling in the legs and ankles persists or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention. A healthcare professional may recommend specific treatments based on the underlying cause, such as diuretics to reduce fluid retention or medications to address any underlying health conditions.

When to Seek Medical Help

While mild swelling in the legs and ankles can often be managed with self-care measures, there are instances where medical attention should be sought:

  • Sudden or severe swelling
  • Swelling accompanied by pain, redness, or warmth
  • Difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • Swelling that does not improve with self-care measures
  • Swelling that occurs after a recent injury or surgery

These symptoms may indicate a more serious underlying condition that requires prompt medical evaluation and treatment.

In conclusion, swelling in the legs and ankles can be caused by various factors, including prolonged sitting or standing, injury, pregnancy, obesity, and underlying health conditions. While self-care measures such as elevating the legs, wearing compression stockings, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and gentle massage can help alleviate swelling, it is important to seek medical attention if the swelling persists or is accompanied by concerning symptoms. By understanding the causes and implementing appropriate treatment strategies, individuals can effectively manage swelling in the legs and ankles and improve their overall well-being.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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