Leg swelling, which is also called “peripheral edema,” occurs when the legs, feet, and ankles accumulate a buildup of fluid. This can cause them to appear larger than normal and may only affect one side of the body. Usually, leg swelling is not painful unless it is caused by injury or other trauma.
Leg swelling can be caused by being overweight, being older, having a blood clot in the leg, having a leg, ankle or foot injury, or having venous insufficiency. Additionally, sitting for long periods of time, such as on an airplane or in a car, can contribute to swelling. Hormonal changes in women during their menstrual cycle or pregnancy can contribute to fluid buildup.
Leg swelling also is a symptom for a number of medical conditions, including kidney failure and disease, cardiomyopathy, heart failure, lymphedema, pericarditis, cirrhosis, or preeclampsia.
Leg swelling is also a side effect of certain medications, including antidepressants, blood pressure medicine, hormone treatments, and steroids.
In some cases, patients can treat the swollen legs at home. To do this, elevate the legs while lying down to help the fluid drain out of them. Avoid wearing tight clothing and try to stay active by moving and stretching the legs. Additionally, reduce the sodium intake and focus on losing weight in the long term to keep the legs from swelling again.
Leg swelling on its own is not dangerous, but when paired with other symptoms, it can be a sign of a serious problem. Patients should always consult with the doctor if they also have dizziness, confusion, pain in the chest, feel light-headed or are having trouble breathing, along with the swelling.
Additionally, if patients are pregnant or have a history of liver, heart or kidney disease, changes in the swelling of the legs could be a sign that the condition is getting worse, and a change in treatment might be required.