You may notice that your legs swell and, when they do, it's painful. A number of different health conditions can cause your legs — or leg — to swell.
Causes of Painful Leg Swelling
A common cause of painful leg swelling is peripheral vascular disease, which occurs when cholesterol plaque builds up in the walls of your arteries, says Melissa Baldwin, MD, an assistant professor of surgery at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. "Leg pain due to vascular disease will worsen with more exertion and generally be relieved by rest," she says. "This type of pain is reproducible each time you perform the activity.
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Read more: Can Artery Plaque Buildup Be Reversed With Diet?
Diabetes also can cause leg swelling. When you have diabetes, it can weaken your heart and your circulation. When your heart is weak and your blood doesn't circulate as it should, you can retain fluid, especially in your lower extremities, according to the Diabetes Library. Your kidneys, too, can be affected and cause you to retain fluids that swell your legs and feet.
Other causes of painful leg swelling, according to the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health Publishing, include:
- Deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the deep veins in your leg.
- A broken foot or leg.
- Cellulitis, a skin infection.
- Lymphedema, a blockage in your lymph system.
- Varicose veins.
Lifestyle and other habits also can cause legs to swell:
- Sitting for too long in one position
- Standing for a long time
- Taking certain medications, such as for diabetes or high blood pressure
- Having overweight
Read more: Exercises for Lymphedema in the Legs
Elevating Your Legs
In many cases, if you elevate your legs, it can help relieve the swelling, says Harvard Health Publishing. Elevating your legs helps your blood to flow more easily out of your leg veins and throughout the rest of your body.
Elevating your legs often relieves pain from varicose veins and lymphedema, say Stanford Health Care and NYU Langone Health. However, Dr. Baldwin says, if you have poor circulation due to peripheral vascular disease, you may worsen your condition with elevation. In that case, keeping your feet on the floor or below your knees can improve pain, she says.
How to Reduce Leg Swelling
If raising your legs helps, elevate your legs as often as you can, above the level of your heart, and keep them elevated for as long as you can. Your goal should be to elevate your legs at least three or four times a day for 15 minutes at a time, according to Stanford Health Care. You may need to add pillows to your footstool or mattress to be sure your limbs are above your heart.
While your legs are elevated, tense your leg muscles. Point and flex your feet. Then rotate your feet at your ankles. Make small circles in one direction and then the other. Bending your legs at your knees also can help.
Here's what else you can do to reduce leg swelling, according to NYU Langone Health and Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan:
- Don't be cross. When seated, keep both feet on the floor. If you cross your legs
at your knees, you are squeezing your veins and blocking blood flow.
- Sit down. If you stand much of the day, take a break and sit down for a few
minutes. Another option is to use a
stool and prop up one foot at a time while standing. Likewise, if you sit most
of the day, get up and walk around. Plan breaks of at least one minute at least
once an hour.
- Walk it off. Try to walk every day. Walking will help get blood flowing in your legs, which will reduce swelling.
- Maintain a healthy weight. As those extra pounds can contribute to your leg
swelling, learn to eat right and move more.
Talk to your doctor about what's causing your legs to swell and the best way to treat the cause.
- Melissa Baldwin, MD, assistant professor of surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York City
- Diabetes Library: "Diabetic Legs Swelling Causes and Remedies"
- Mayo Clinic: "Leg Swelling, Causes"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Varicose Veins"
- New York University Langone Health: "Lifestyle Changes for Lymphedema"
- Michigan Medicine: University of Michigan: "Varicose Veins Home Treatment"
- Stanford Health Care: "Elevation of Legs for Varicose Veins"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Edema"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.