What causes swelling in the legs? 7 possible causes

Why are my legs swelling up? While this question may be scary for some, it’s not an uncommon experience. Nearly 20% of older adults experience swelling in the legs, also called lower limb edema.

Issues with swelling in the feet, ankles and lower limbs can occur for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s simply due to a lack of activity or other minor conditions, while some can be more serious. Let’s take a look at some common causes of swollen legs and how to deal with them.

Causes of swollen legs

Swelling in the legs can be caused by fluid buildup, also called fluid retention, or from inflammation in injured or diseased tissue or joints. Here are some specific causes of swelling in the legs:

  • Gravity — If you spend a lot of time in a sedentary position (sitting or standing in one position for too long), gravity can naturally pull fluid down into the lower areas of your body. This is called dependent edema and can be reduced if you take occasional breaks for intentional movement.
  • Weak valves in veins — If the valves in your veins are weak, it can be difficult for your veins to push blood back up to your heart. This can lead to varicose veins and a buildup of fluid in the legs. Keeping your legs elevated can reduce swelling and increase blood flow to the heart.
  • Underlying medical conditions — Serious conditions such as heart failure or lung, liver, kidney and thyroid diseases can cause edema. Most of the time, addressing the more serious condition can reduce swelling in the legs.
  • Medication side effects — Certain drugs such as blood pressure or pain management medications can cause edema as a side effect. Talk with your doctor to see what you can do to reduce the side effects of your specific medication.
  • Poor nutrition — If your diet is high in salt, that excess sodium can cause you to retain more water. This can increase fluid buildup and cause swelling in the legs. Regulating your diet to be more well balanced can help decrease fluid retention.
  • Pregnancy — During pregnancy, the uterus puts pressure on the blood vessels in the lower half of the body. This can cause swelling due to decreased blood flow. Propping up your feet or gentle exercise can help decrease swelling in the legs and feet.
  • Inflammation — Inflammation due to a compromised immune system, an allergic reaction, infection, burns, trauma or clots can lead to edema. To reduce swelling, you and your doctor or physical therapist should try to address the root cause of the inflammation.

Most of the time, swelling in the legs is due to an underlying condition or issue. You should talk to your doctor to rule out serious health conditions.

How to reduce swelling in legs

While you may need to address the underlying issues that are causing your legs to swell, there are temporary measures you can use to get relief. Here are a few things you can do to decrease leg swelling and promote blood flow:

  • Prop up your feet — If you elevate your feet above your heart, gravity can force fluid back to the center of your body. This promotes blood flow and can decrease swelling due to edema.
  • Gentle exercise — Walking, biking, and yoga or Pilates are good ways to get moving. When you move, you’re promoting blood flow and draining of the lymphatic system, both of which can help decrease swelling in the legs.
  • Compression socks — If you put compression socks on in the morning, they can help prevent swelling from increasing throughout the day. Make sure to measure your legs at their smallest to get the right size of compression socks.

These measures can help reduce minor swelling in the legs. However, if the condition persists, physical therapy may be your best solution. Your physical therapist can use targeted methods to help reduce swelling and get your body moving properly. Here are a few manual therapy methods that can help with edema and leg swelling:

  • Soft tissue manipulation — Soft tissue manipulation is a way your physical therapist can increase blood flow and stimulate healing in the soft tissue. This can help drain the excess fluid from your legs and get your lymphatic system working better.
  • Targeted exercises — Your physical therapist can show you the right exercises for the swelling in your legs. They may also assist you in moving in ways that might be challenging on your own. The goal with this is to increase blood flow and prevent fluid from pooling in the legs.

Some physical therapists have a Certification in Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy (COMT). This is a postgraduate specialty program that focuses on manual therapy techniques. At Lattimore PT, we have 30 fully certified COMTs who can use specialized manual therapy techniques to help you address your leg swelling issues.

Swollen legs can be frustrating and make it more difficult to live your daily life. If you’re ready to address your edema issues, contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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