Why Are My Legs Swollen?

Have you noticed lately that your socks are tight and your pants feel snug? Your legs swell for two main reasons:

  • Fluid buildup (edema): It happens when the tissues or blood vessels in your legs hold more fluid than they should. This can happen if you simply spend a long day on your feet, or sit for too long. But it may also be a sign that you’re overweight or don’t get enough exercise, or of more serious medical conditions.
  • Inflammation: It happens when the tissues in your leg get irritated and swollen. It’s a natural response if you break a bone or tear a tendon or ligament, but it also may be a sign of more serious inflammatory illness, like arthritis.

Here are some common reasons your leg may be swollen.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and Thrombophlebitis

If you have DVT, it means there's a blood clot in a vein in your leg. It could break off and travel to your lung. When that happens, it's called a pulmonary embolism, and it can be life-threatening.

In thrombophlebitis, also called superficial thrombophlebitis, clots form closer to the surface of the skin and aren't likely to break off.

One of the first symptoms of DVT or thrombophlebitis is a swollen leg, as blood pools in the area. Check with your doctor right away if you have swelling in one leg or  any of these other symptoms:

  • Leg pain, tenderness, or cramping
  • Skin that's tinged red or blue
  • Skin that feels warm

 

Pregnancy

By the third trimester, your growing baby puts pressure on the veins in your legs. This slows the circulation of your blood and causes fluid to build up. The result: mild swelling.

If you notice these other symptoms as well, let your doctor know because it might mean you have a serious condition called preeclampsia:

  • Severe swelling, especially around your eyes
  • Bad headache
  • Vision changes, like blurriness or sensitivity to light

Congestive Heart Failure

This happens when your heart is too weak to pump all the blood your body needs. It leads to fluid buildup, especially in your legs. Other symptoms of congestive heart failure:

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Medications

Sometimes swelling can be an unwelcome side effect of prescription drugs. For example, some people who take heart medicines called calcium channel-blockers can get swollen legs.

Call your doctor if you take any of these drugs and get swollen lower limbs:

 

Varicose Veins

You get these when the valves inside your leg veins don't keep the blood flowing up toward your heart. Instead, it backs up and collects in pools, causing blue-ish clusters of varicose veins on your skin. Sometimes, they can make your legs swell.

Some other symptoms you might get:

  • Pain after sitting or standing for a long time
  • Changes in your skin color
  • Dry, irritated, cracked skin
  • Sores

Long-Term Kidney Disease

This happens when your kidneys don't work the way they should. Instead of filtering water and waste material from your blood, fluid gathers in your body, which causes swelling in your arms and legs.

You may also notice symptoms like these:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Excessive thirst
  • Bruising and bleeding

Sprain or Broken Bone

If you twist your ankle or break a bone, you'll likely get some swelling. It's your body's natural reaction to the injury. It moves fluid and white blood cells into the area and releases chemicals that help in the healing process.

What Should I Do About My Swollen Legs?

You can try these home remedies to reduce the swelling:

  • Cut back on salty foods
  • Wear compression stockings
  • Get exercise every day
  • On long car rides, switch positions and stop for breaks as often as you can
  • When you fly, get up from your seat and move around as much as possible
  • Raise your legs above your heart level for half an hour, several times a day

But since leg swelling can be a sign of something serious, don't ignore it. If you notice other symptoms, especially leg pain, shortness of breath, or extreme fatigue, call your doctor right away.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on December 04, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Alicia Groft, MD, associate professor of medicine, Dartmouth Medical School.

CDC: "National Chronic Kidney Disease Fact Sheet."

Ely, J.W. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, March-April 2006.

March of Dimes: "Swelling."

Mayo Clinic: “Leg Swelling.”

National Blood Clot Alliance: "Signs and Symptoms of Blood Clots." 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure?"

National Institutes of Health: "Varicose Veins and Venous Insufficiency."

Nationwide Children's Hospital: "Swelling: The Body's Reaction to Injury."

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