Leg swelling is generally a symptom linked to an underlying condition such as pregnancy or diabetes. While it can occur more often as a person ages, it can affect people of any age. What causes legs to swell varies from person to person. In many cases, the symptom is harmless; however, there are more serious causes for leg swelling.
A common cause of leg swelling is edema, which occurs when fluids build up in the leg tissue. While gravity can lead to fluid buildup, the Mayo Clinic describes more serious factors to consider with edema, such as acute kidney failure, heart failure and blood clots. Some prescribed medications may cause edema, including hormone-replacement therapy drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and medications taken for depression, diabetes and high blood pressure. Fluid buildup can also be linked to nonmedical conditions such as prolonged sitting or standing.
Leg swelling, or edema, is a common complaint among pregnant women. This is due to the extra fluids produced by the body to support the developing baby. In many cases, swelling during pregnancy is normal; however, the American Pregnancy Association warns expectant mothers to be aware of sudden swelling or additional swelling in the hands and face as this can be a sign of preeclampsia. Other symptoms of preeclampsia can include high blood pressure, headaches and vomiting.
Other medical conditions can contribute to leg inflammation. The Mayo Clinic says these include rheumatoid arthritis, knee bursitis and osteoarthritis, among others. Injuries such as an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, broken legs and sprained ankles may also lead to leg swelling. The Mayo Clinic adds that "leg swelling related to inflammation is usually associated with pain."
Treatment for leg swelling depends on the cause. When fluid buildup is suspected, the Cleveland Clinic says the treatment can include making lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, and limiting salt and alcohol consumption. If medication is the suspected cause, stopping use of the drug may be recommended. Diuretics may be prescribed to help the body release excess fluid.
Along with treating the underlying condition, you can take additional steps to relieve leg swelling. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends elevating your legs above the heart or wearing support stockings. Since some leg swelling is due to inactivity, you should move often and take stretching breaks while traveling. The American Pregnancy Association recommends that pregnant women use cold compresses on the swollen areas.
When to see a doctor
Although you may feel your leg swelling is not a medical concern, the Mayo Clinic advises visiting "a doctor for a thorough exam and accurate diagnosis." Emergency treatment should be sought should leg swelling coincide with chest pain, breathing difficulties or fainting. If the area is also warm or tender, you should seek medical treatment as this may be a sign of thrombophlebitis, or a blood clot. If you suspect your medications are the cause of your swelling, you should not stop taking the medications without first speaking with your doctor.