What Do Swollen Feet Mean?

Reviewed on 1/13/2021

What are swollen feet?

It is not uncommon to get swollen feet, especially if you've been walking or standing for long periods of time. There are times, however, where swelling of the feet can be a sign of something more serious.
It is not uncommon to get swollen feet, especially if you’ve been walking or standing for long periods of time. There are times, however, where swelling of the feet can be a sign of something more serious.

It is not uncommon to get swollen feet, especially if you’ve been walking or standing for long periods of time. Swelling tends to occur more frequently among older adults, pregnant women, and people who are overweight. Minor injuries or overheating are also common reasons why your feet might swell.

Most of the time, sitting down, resting, and elevating your feet will alleviate any pain or swelling. There are times, however, where swelling of the feet can be a sign of something more serious. You should consider going to see your doctor if your feet remain swollen or are accompanied by other symptoms.

Signs of swollen feet

Signs of swollen feet include an increase in the size of the foot due to a buildup of fluid, known as edema. Depending on the cause, the skin around the swollen area can be painful and sensitive to the touch. Other signs can include shiny, stretched skin, skin that stays dimpled after pressing it, and discomfort or reduced ability to move the foot.  

If, in addition to swollen feet, you have any other symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, or coughing, this is likely the sign of a more serious health condition. You should seek medical help right away. 

Causes of swollen feet

There are several causes for swollen feet, and they range from mild and not serious to extremely painful and very serious. Identifying the cause of why your foot might be swollen is important in order to heal. Here are the most common reasons for swollen feet.

Deep-vein thrombosis

Deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) is a type of blood clot that forms in the legs or another large vein in the body. It blocks the return of blood from the legs to the heart, which causes swelling in the legs and feet. This clot can detach and travel through the heart and into the lungs where it can wedge and be extremely dangerous.

Heart failure

A heart that is not working properly has a difficult time circulating blood throughout your body. As your feet are the furthest away from your heart, blood that is there might not make it back to your heart and pool in the veins of your feet, causing them to swell.

Infections

Skin wounds from blisters, burns, or insect bites can become infected and cause your foot to swell. Check all around your foot for any signs of bruises, bumps, cuts, or abrasions. 

Injury 

Injuries like broken bones, sprains, or strains can cause swelling in the feet, and so can surgery involving the leg, ankle, or foot. An injury causes blood to rush to the injured area.

Kidney disease

A swollen foot is usually the first sign that your kidneys aren’t working properly. Fluid can build up in the tissues if a disease is making it hard for the kidneys to get rid of excess fluids in the body.

Liver disease

Some liver diseases can lead to low blood levels of a protein made in the liver called albumin. Low levels of this protein can cause fluid in the blood to pass into the tissues, producing swelling in the legs, feet, and potentially other parts of your body like your hands and face.

Lymphedema

Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid usually caused by the removal of or damage to the lymph nodes. This build-up occurs in the soft tissue of the arms or legs, which causes swelling.

Medication side effects

Certain drugs’ side effects include swelling of the feet. Steroids, antidepressants, diabetes medication, and calcium-channel blocker medication used to treat high blood pressure have all been shown to have the potential to increase swelling in the hands and feet. 

Pregnancy

A normal part of being pregnant includes your body holding more water than before. Gravity will pull the extra water down towards the feet, especially if you’ve been standing for long periods of time while pregnant. The additional pressure of a growing womb also pushes liquids away from the center of your body towards the extremities. 

Venous insufficiency

Veins in the legs have valves that fight gravity and don’t allow blood to pool at the feet. These valves grow weaker as you get older, and sometimes don’t perform as well as they used to.

SLIDESHOW

Common Causes of Foot Pain See Slideshow

When should you see a doctor for swollen feet

Excessive or prolonged pain from swollen feet is usually a sign that there is a more serious health condition. You should see your doctor right away if you have swollen feet accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain, pressure, or tightness 
  • Leg ulcerations or blisters
  • Pain and swelling that doesn’t get better
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin that retains a dimple after you press it
  • Stretched or broken skin in the affected area
  • Swelling on only one side

Diagnosis for swollen feet

Your doctor will review your medical history and do a thorough physical examination, paying special attention to your heart, lungs, abdomen, lymph nodes, legs, and feet. They will likely ask you questions like: 

  • What body parts have been swelling?
  • Does the swelling occur all day, or is it worse in the morning or evening?
  • What makes the swelling worse?
  • What makes the swelling go down?
  • Does the swelling get better when you raise your legs?
  • Have you had blood clots in your legs or lungs?
  • Have you had varicose veins?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

After the physical exam, the doctor should have a good idea of what is causing your swollen feet. They may, however, refer you to take some diagnostic tests that can include:

Treatments for swollen feet

There are several things that you can do at home to help prevent or reduce the swelling of your feet: 

  • Avoid wearing tight pants
  • Exercise your legs
  • Keep your legs elevated above your heart while lying down 
  • Lose weight, if possible
  • Reduce salt (sodium) in your diet
  • Wear support stockings 
  • When traveling, especially in an airplane, stand up and move around as much as you can

If these lifestyle changes do not reduce the swelling in your feet, your doctor may prescribe medicines and diuretics to help.

QUESTION

All ___________ have flat feet. See Answer

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References
American Society of Hematology: "Blood Clots."

Harvard Medical School: "What’s Causing Those Swollen Feet?"

Institute for Preventive Foot Health: "Foot Conditions A-Z."

National Health Service: "Swollen Ankles, Feet, and Fingers in Pregnancy."

Society for Vascular Surgery: "Lymphedema."

U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: "Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling."

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