A common question that most of us will ask at least once in our lives is why are my feet swollen?
Foot and ankle swelling might simply be your body’s way of telling you to take a break, there may be an underlying medical condition or in some cases it could be that something serious is going on.
The good news is that most cases of swollen ankles and feet are not serious and can be managed effectively at home. Here we look at what causes swollen feet, what you can do to help and what signs to look for so that to know when you need to see your doctor.
Damage to any of the foot and ankle structures such as broken bones, sprained ligaments or tendon damage can result in swelling feet. With a foot injury, blood rushes to the area as part of the healing process, bringing in much-needed nutrients and oxygen, but the downside of that is foot swelling.
Treatment for swollen feet will depend on the type of foot injury but the best place to start is with:
Oedema, also spelt edema, is a common condition where the body stores excess fluid in the tissues, known as fluid retention. The feet and ankles are the most common area to experience oedema as gravity draws the fluid down, but it can occur in the face and arms.
Classic symptoms of oedema include:
Many cases of mild oedema settle down by themselves but treatment options include:
Certain lifestyle factors can lead to foot and ankle swelling such as
Simple measures such as keeping active, moving around regularly rather than staying in one position, regular exercise, weight loss (if appropriate) and comfortable footwear can make a real difference with swollen feet.
Most pregnant women will notice their feet and ankles swelling at some point, most commonly in the third trimester, as the body naturally produces more blood and fluids and retains more water during pregnancy. There is also more pressure on blood vessels affecting circulation.
Most cases of swollen feet in pregnancy fluctuate and are not serious but sudden foot swelling can be a sign of pre-eclampsia, a condition linked with high blood pressure which can be very serious.
Typical signs of pre-eclampsia usually develop in the second half of pregnancy and include:
If you have any of these symptoms during pregnancy, see your doctor immediately.
During hot weather feet and ankles often swell up as your veins expand to help keep you cool. This pushes fluids out into the surrounding tissues which then pools in your feet.
If you are prone to foot swelling and pain in hot weather try to:
Chronic Venous Insufficiency, CVI, is a condition where the valves in the leg veins don’t work properly, making it hard for them to pump blood back up from the feet, against gravity, to the heart. Blood seeps back down and fluid pools around the feet and ankles.
Treatment for foot swelling from CVI includes:
Ankle and foot swelling may be a sign that the heart is not pumping blood around the body correctly. Pressure builds up in the blood vessels causing fluid to seep out into the surrounding tissues and collects around the ankles due to gravity.
With heart failure, as well as swollen feet you may also experience:
Heart failure requires ongoing medical care including medication, lifestyle changes and in some cases surgery.
If the kidneys aren’t working properly, they can’t filter salt and fluid effectively out of the blood which leads to fluid retention. Common symptoms of kidney disease include
Treatment for kidney disease includes:
The liver filters blood and makes proteins that are important for blood clotting. If the liver isn’t working properly then fluid leaks out of the blood and pools in the feet. Symptoms of liver disease include:
Liver function will be closely monitored by your doctor and treatment for liver disease may include:
Fungal and bacterial infections often cause swollen feet. Typical infections that lead to the feet swelling include:
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help treat the infection and reduce foot swelling.
Fluid circulates in the lymphatic system as part of the body’s immune system. Damage to or removal of lymph nodes, most commonly during cancer treatment, causes excess lymph fluid to collect in the surrounding tissues causing arm, leg, ankle and foot swelling.
There is no specific cure for lymphedema but there are a number of things you can do to reduce the pain and swelling such as:
When the blood clots or flows abnormally, a gel-like clump of platelets and fibrin forms. When this happens in the leg veins, it can impede blood flow back to the heart causing foot and ankle swelling.
If a blood clot forms in the deep leg veins, known as a DVT, it can cause a serious blockage requiring immediate medical attention.
Typical signs of a DVT are:
Treatment & prevention measures for blood clots may involve:
Swelling in the big toe is a common sign of foot gout, a type of inflammatory arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals. Symptoms of gout foot usually develop suddenly and rapidly at nighttime and as well as toe and foot swelling there is usually intense pain and the skin appears red and hot.
Gout foot usually settles down on its own in a couple of weeks but there are various medications that can help to reduce the foot pain and swelling and prevent further attacks such as NDSAIDs, corticosteroids and colchicine.
Your body retains more water when you drink alcohol which can lead to foot and ankle swelling. Usually, it settles down in a couple of days. If you notice frequent swelling after consuming alcohol it could be a sign of an underlying problem with your heart, liver or kidneys and you should get checked out by your doctor.
Many causes of swelling feet can be treated at home with a combination of:
Most causes of swollen feet and ankles are nothing to worry about and can be treated at home but if you have any of the following symptoms you should seek immediate medical attention:
If your symptoms are less severe but your foot swelling persists for more than a few days despite using the treatment methods discussed above, then see your doctor. They can run tests to see if there is an underlying medical condition and give you a definitive answer to the question, why are my feet swollen.
Page Last Updated: 11/03/21
Next Review Due: 11/03/23