What Causes Swollen Feet?

Women on couch examining feet massaging ankle

For those who work standing or are frequently on the go, it’s not uncommon to end the day with swollen and uncomfortable feet. In fact, approximately 19% of the adult population in the U.S. suffers from a condition known as peripheral edema or lymphedema. Lymphedema is the chronic progressive swelling of tissue due to inadequate lymphatic function. 

But what causes swollen feet? Should you be concerned? 

We’ll go over this common condition, why it occurs, and what you can do to manage your uncomfortable symptoms.

person on bed showing swollen feet holding lower calf and shin

What Are Swollen Feet?

Swollen feet, sometimes identified as lymphedema, is a medical condition caused by fluids that build up in the soft tissues of your extremities. The more water retained in your tissue, the more puffy, swollen, and uncomfortable the surrounding tissues can become. The swelling can occur in one or both feet simultaneously and can extend into the calves. This can be caused by several factors.

Common symptoms of swollen feet include:

If you have swollen feet, you may struggle to stand, walk, and even put on your socks and shoes.

young child or infant with swollen ankles and feet

What Causes Swollen Feet?

Swelling in the feet can be a sign of several underlying conditions. In some cases, foot swelling can be a normal response to standing for long periods. However, persistent or severe swelling in the feet can be a symptom of a more serious problem.

Medical conditions, such as heart, kidney, or liver disease, can cause fluid to build up in the body, including the feet and ankles. Venous insufficiency is also a common cause of leg swelling and can be a serious medical issue. 

Venous insufficiency occurs when the veins in your legs don’t circulate blood correctly. Normally, blood pumps from the heart outward to the extremities, feeding oxygen-rich blood to your tissues that keeps you mobile and healthy. However, with time, heredity  along with some medical conditions, the veins weaken and become less effective at pumping blood to the heart.

Other lifestyle factors can increase your risk of developing swollen feet, including being overweight, pregnant or taking certain medications. Injuries are another common cause of swollen feet. Spraining or fracturing an ankle can cause long term swelling.

Pregnant person on couch holding and examining foot

Should I Worry About My Swollen Feet?

In general, swollen feet are not harmful—however, they can indicate underlying health conditions that come with their own set of risks. Because of this, patients with persistent or long-term swelling in their feet should see a healthcare provider immediately, especially if the swelling is accompanied by other symptoms. 

However, swollen feet can also be a benign symptom caused by certain physical activities. For example, if you have been standing or walking a lot on a hot day, your feet may swell as a result.

top down view of side by side comparison of a swollen and non swollen foot

Can Swollen Feet Go Away?

Swollen feet can go away with proper treatment and by managing underlying conditions. If the swelling is caused by something temporary, such as being on your feet for too long, the condition should improve on its own.

Treatment for chronic swollen feet can vary depending on the cause. For example, if a blood clot is causing foot swelling, your doctor may use blood thinning medication to dissolve the clot. If the swelling is caused by heart failure, treatment may include medications to help improve heart function and reduce fluid buildup.

Even for patients with an underlying condition, there are behavioral changes you can adopt to lessen the risk of swollen feet. These behavioral changes can include regular exercise, compression, maintaining a healthy diet, and limiting salt intake. 

Individuals with swollen feet can also:

  • Elevate your feet above the level of your heart to reduce fluid buildup
  • Calf muscle pumps exercises
  • Apply a cold compress to the swollen area to bring down inflammation
  • Wear compression stockings to improve circulation

Swelling or lymphedema can go away with proper treatment. However, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional to determine the right course of treatment.

Female doctor examining patients feet

When Should I See My Provider for Swollen Feet?

If you’re experiencing swollen feet and are unsure of the cause, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare professional. Signs or conditions that indicate it may be time to see a healthcare provider for swollen feet include:

  • Signs of infection, skin changes
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism (PE)
  • Pregnancy 
  • Kidney or heart disease
  • Medications that affect blood flow
  • Swelling that impacts normal daily living

See your provider if other unusual symptoms occur alongside your swollen feet, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

Your provider will ask about your symptoms and review your medical history, performing a physical examination to determine the cause of the swelling. Often an ultrasound of the legs is ordered to study underlying circulation. Sometimes further imaging such as as a CT scan will be performed to evaluate other potential causes of leg swelling. Depending on the underlying cause, the provider may recommend certain lifestyle changes, medications, compression, medical devices or other treatments to help reduce the swelling. 

Suffering from swollen feet? Ellison Vein Institute is here to help. Our medical experts specialize in the treatment of vein-related diseases and lymphedema using state-of-the-art technology to help patients manage their symptoms and treat underlying health conditions.

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