Your legs are looking like they belong to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. You look down and can barely see your toes. And, wouldn’t you know, you suddenly have cankles (calf-ankles) where your ankles used to be.
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“Why are my legs so swollen?” you ask.
It’s a good question — and not an easy one to answer.
“A hundred different things can cause swollen legs,” says vascular surgeon Francis Caputo, MD. And those can range from no big deal to very serious.
When should you be concerned? We talked to Dr. Caputo for the rundown on some common causes of leg swelling, and what to do about them.
Signs your legs are swollen
If you find it difficult to put on or take off your shoes or socks, it could be a hint that something is amiss. Or if you find that it’s more difficult than usual to bend at your ankles, swelling may be the culprit.
“If you press gently on your lower leg and can see your fingerprint indent for more than a few seconds, chances are, you have some excess fluid buildup,” Dr. Caputo says.
Other signs of swollen legs may include:
- Indents left on your skin when you remove your socks or pant legs.
- Legs or feet that feel heavy, numb or itchy.
- Skin that looks puffy, stretched or shiny.
- Skin that feels tight or painful.
Reasons your legs may be swelling
Swollen legs can stem from a wide range of causes, Dr. Caputo reiterates. Sometimes, it’s a result of fluid buildup after a long day on your feet. In other cases, leg swelling can be a sign of a serious condition.
If you’ve been on your feet all day, it’s not uncommon to have some puffiness in your feet or legs. Same if you’ve been sitting for hours in a car or on a plane. That swelling, called edema, strikes when fluid builds up in your feet and legs. It’s more common in people who are overweight or pregnant but can happen to anyone.
What to do about it: Limit salt in your diet. When you’re traveling, get up frequently to stretch and move. If you have mild swelling and want to de-puff, go for a walk, do some ankle rolls or prop your feet up on pillows.
2. Deep vein thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in a vein of your body, usually (but not always) in your pelvis, thigh or lower leg. Typical symptoms of DVT include:
- Enlarged veins near your skin’s surface.
- Pain or tenderness in your leg.
- Swelling in one leg, sometimes accompanied by skin that’s red or warm to the touch.
DVT isn’t life-threatening itself. However, if a clot breaks free, it can travel to your lungs and block the flow of blood. That can lead to a pulmonary embolism — a very serious situation.
What to do about it: If you experience signs of DVT, it’s important to seek treatment right away to lessen your risk of pulmonary embolism. Your healthcare provider may recommend:
- Elevating your legs.
- Wearing compression stockings.
- Surgical treatment.
3. Venous insufficiency
Sometimes, the veins in your legs can become weakened. When that happens, blood doesn’t flow as easily back to your heart. As a result, you can develop varicose veins and fluid buildup in your legs. Venous insufficiency sometimes develops in people who’ve had DVT in the past.
What to do about it: If you’re living with venous insufficiency, your healthcare provider may recommend:
- Lifestyle changes like increased exercise and weight loss.
- Compression socks or intermittent pneumatic compression devices.
- Surgical treatment.
Lymphedema occurs when your body’s lymph nodes aren’t filtering lymph fluid as well as they should. When that happens, it can cause swelling of one or more limbs, ranging from mild to dramatic.
Lymphedema sometimes occurs in people who’ve had lymph nodes removed for cancer treatment. It can affect others whose lymph nodes are damaged or working improperly for other reasons.
What to do about it: Common treatments for managing lymphedema include:
- Compression stockings and devices.
- Lymphatic drainage (a form of self-massage).
- Surgical treatment.
5. Heart, kidney or liver disease
What to do about it: If you have (or suspect you have) any of these conditions and notice new or persistent swelling in your legs, talk to a healthcare provider about managing those conditions.
Should I see a doctor about my swollen legs?
Plenty of other conditions can also make legs swell, including infections, injuries and conditions like arthritis. If the puffiness isn’t too dramatic and resolves within a day or so, it’s probably nothing to lose sleep over. Talk with a healthcare provider, though, if your swelling:
- Lasts longer.
- Happens regularly.
- Affects just one leg.
- Teams up with other symptoms.
“Swollen legs are often a sign of a bigger problem,” states Dr. Caputo. “If you have leg swelling, you should get checked out by your primary care doctor to figure out what’s going on.”