Leg Swelling and When to See a Doctor

Problems with your legs or feet are often difficult to ignore. After all, they help get you from point A to point B. There is reasonable cause for concern if you notice that your legs or feet grow in size somewhat suddenly.

Inflammation in the legs or feet can indicate a variety of issues. The good news is that treatment options are available.

What Causes Swollen Legs and Feet?

Many factors can cause leg and foot swelling, including:

  • Standing for a long period of time.
  • Hot climates.
  • A diet rich in salt.
  • Inactivity.
  • An injury like a broken ankle.
  • Other serious medical ailments, including problems with your veins or lymphatic system.

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What if Only One Leg Is Swollen?

If only one of your legs swells, it could mean you have an infection, injury, or a blood clot affecting only that leg. Most conditions that lead to swelling affect both legs.

What Do Swollen Legs Mean?

Swollen legs or feet could be a sign of many different issues, including high-sodium diets, pregnancy, and medication side effects. Swelling can also indicate more serious conditions.

Dependent Edema

Do you have a job that requires you to stay on your feet all day? Do you log 10,000 or more steps in a day? If your answer to either is yes and you experience swelling in your legs or feet, you might have dependent edema. It is a common ailment for people who are constantly on their feet.

Edema occurs when gravity causes blood to congregate in the veins of your legs. Blood buildup collects in your tissue and swells, which makes your shoes feel a little tighter.

Treating dependent edema requires relaxation and elevating your legs. When you’re on your feet for long periods of time, compression socks can also help.

A high-sodium diet

Meals rich in salt or sodium can promote swelling in your legs, but a pinch of salt for flavor on your dinner isn’t the only culprit. Many of the foods in a typical American diet — such as cold cuts and cured meats, french fries, cheese, pizza, popcorn, and crackers — are high in sodium.

To improve the swelling in your legs and feet, look for low-sodium alternatives, avoid adding salt to meals, and consume water-rich foods.

Stay hydrated with:

  • Fruits like watermelon and berries.
  • Bone broth or broth-based soups.
  • Potassium-rich foods like bananas and avocados.
  • Coconut water.
  • Calcium-rich veggies like broccoli and kale.
  • Seafood like salmon.
  • Foods rich in magnesium, like spinach, dark chocolate, and nuts like almonds, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds.

Pregnancy or premenstrual syndrome

Sometimes feet swell because of a medical condition, such as pregnancy. As a person’s belly expands with a growing fetus, the pelvic veins experience more pressure.

You can also have swollen feet with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). People are more likely to retain water and sodium after ovulation.

To relieve swollen-leg pain from pregnancy and PMS:

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Avoid high-sodium foods and caffeine.
  • Wear compression socks.
  • Elevate your legs and feet.

Side effects from medication

Sometimes doctor-prescribed medications can include side effects like swollen feet. These medications may include calcium channel blockers, chemotherapy drugs, and vasodilators. Check with your doctor to find out if the medication you’re taking is causing your swelling.

Can Swollen Legs or Feet Be Serious?

Many of these causes involve something minor, but sometimes swollen legs and feet can indicate something more serious. Swollen legs can also be a sign of injury or other serious medical conditions.


Breaks and sprains are likely to cause inflammation and swelling. Depending on severity and pain, you may want to go to the emergency room. If it’s minor enough to treat at home, you can follow the RICE method:

  1. Rest.
  2. Ice. (Do not use heat, which can increase the swelling.)
  3. Compression. Apply pressure or a bandage to the area.
  4. Elevation. Elevate your foot above your heart level to decrease inflammation.


Sometimes, swollen legs or feet are a complication of diabetes. Treatment for this chronic condition includes:

  • Elevating your feet.
  • Consulting your doctor about medication.
  • Moderating sodium and sugar intake.
  • Wearing compression socks when necessary.


Cellulitis is a skin infection that can lead to swollen feet. Cellulitis usually occurs as a result of an opening or break in the skin, which allows bacteria to enter. Also, untreated wounds on your feet can become infected and lead to inflammation. Consult a doctor and make sure you take care of infections before they lead to an additional medical condition.


Lymphedema is an aggregation of lymph fluid in fatty tissues. Though it’s sometimes inherited, it most often occurs in patients who have undergone surgery or treatment for cancer. Staying active and using compression socks or lymphedema pumps can help limit inflammation from lymphedema.

Heart or kidney failure

Swollen feet and legs can indicate heart or kidney failure. They signal improper circulation of blood and fluids. Kidney failure can also cause weakness, nausea, lethargy, breathlessness, and irregular heartbeat.

In addition to swollen feet, heart failure can cause nausea, weight gain, stomach pain, and additional swelling in the neck, lower extremities, and stomach.

Diuretics can alleviate the swelling caused by kidney problems.

Blood clots

Swollen legs or feet are just one possible sign of blood clots. Risk factors for blood clots include:

  • Being inactive.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Smoking.
  • Heart or kidney disease.
  • Cancer.
  • Previous blood clots.
  • Stroke.
  • Medication like birth control pills.


Swollen feet may also indicate liver damage. Medications, exercise, and a change in lifestyle, including restricting alcohol and sodium, can help.

When to See a Doctor for Leg Swelling

Swollen legs require different treatments based on severity and other underlying medical conditions. Sometimes your feet might simply be tired, while other times, there might be something more serious at play.

If swelling improves with leg elevation, it is most likely due to a benign condition and does not require treatment by a doctor. If you experience severe swelling, wounds or drainage from your legs, or severe pain, see a doctor right away.

Listen to your body and check with your doctor if you aren’t sure what is causing your swelling.

Amanda Gardner and Danielle McNeil, DPM. 13 Causes of Swollen Feet. Health.com. Link

American Cancer Society. Lymphedema. Cancer.org. Link

Erin Davis, MS, RDN, CDCES. Diabetes and Swollen Feet: What's the Link? EndocrineWeb. Link

Joanne Lewsley and Adrienne Seitz, MS, RD, LDN. Which foods are high in sodium? MedicalNewsToday. Link

Meghan Holohan. A man's toe pain, swollen leg leads to a surprising diagnosis: stage 3 kidney cancer. TODAY. Link

Zawn Villines and Angela Ryan Lee, MD, FACC. Can heart failure cause swollen feet? MedicalNewsToday. Link

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