co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
Your feet and ankles can swell when fluid from blood vessels accumulate down there. Causes range from benign to serious and include being overweight, standing for long periods of time (e.g. lengthy car or airplane rides), hormonal changes.
This article will explore some of the underlying causes of edema, inform you on the serious ones, and provide you with a few tips to keep in mind.
What are swollen feet?
Swelling or puffiness of a body part is known as edema. Edema usually happens in the feet, ankles, and legs because blood that made its way down there (from the heart) now has to fight its way up against gravity—and there’s no other blood pumping mechanism in your extremities other than the contraction of your leg muscles when you walk or go for a run.
Thus swollen feet are greatly marked in people with venous insufficiency, and conditions that make this state worse (e.g. obesity, diabetes, pregnancy, sitting or standing for long periods of time), which can compromise venous tone.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are subjective (e.g. you may feel pain, numbness), and signs are objective (e.g. swelling and redness of your feet). Your doctor can tell by examining you whether you have edema. The skin over the swollen area may be stretched and shiny (this is a sign). Pushing gently on the swollen area for a few seconds will leave a dimple, and if this happens, your doctor might want to do tests to see what is causing the edema.
It is important to recognize that swollen feet can also be a sign of serious, underlying conditions like kidney disease and congestive heart failure (accompanied by symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, inability to sleep lying flat, etc.). If you are pregnant and you notice edema, or if you have trouble breathing see your doctor right away.
What are the common causes?
Your feet may “feel” swollen, but it does not necessarily mean you have edema. True edema can be due to congestive heart failure and liver, kidney, and thyroid diseases. Changes in the chemistry of the blood can also cause edema—for example, imbalance in electrolytes (e.g. too much salt; too little protein). It may be worth to point out that you cannot catch edema from other people. It is also not hereditary (i.e. does not run in families).
What can be done to help
Edema cannot be “cured.” But by treating the condition causing it you can reduce edema. There are some things you can do to keep the swelling down.
- Put a pillow under your legs when you are lying down. Keeping your legs higher than the rest of your body allows for blood to return back to the heart more easily—instead of pooling at your feet and ankles.
- Wear support stockings, which you can buy at most drugstores. Support stockings put pressure on your legs and keep water from collecting in your legs and ankles.
- Do not sit or stand for too long without moving: When sitting or standing in one position for a long time, stretch your legs and move around every couple of hours.
- Follow your doctor’s orders about salt intake. Your doctor might want you to take a medicine called a diuretic (i.e. water pill). Some physicians may give you a window period to do this “naturally”, and there’s your chance to speak with a licensed naturopathic doctor. Consider cutting your salt intake to less than a teaspoon daily, which helps reduce water retention.
- Go for walks: Get regular exercise (contracting leg muscles helps the veins pump blood back to the heart); and lose weight if you need to—the benefits are monumental, like reducing high blood pressure, and reducing knee and low back pain.
The goal is to improve circulation and to return fluid to blood vessels and heart. Speak with your health care providers about complementary herbal therapies such as those with hawthorn berry (excellent cardiovascular tonic) and horse chestnut.
People with kidney disease should not take supplements without the consent of a healthcare provider. Those without a serious underlying condition may wish to explore other options such as the therapeutic use of magnesium.