Employee & Community Health

FAQs: Why are my feet swollen?

2/14/2019 by Dr. Ryan Giddings Connolly

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Having swollen feet isn't uncommon, but it can be alarming. Why is this happening? Should I be concerned? Was it something I ate? Is it related to my medications? What can I do to get rid of it?

We've all had unwanted swelling to a certain degree. Who hasn't experienced the occasional "sock marks" — the indentation caused by the cuff of our socks by the end of the day. While you may not have paid much attention to this before, it may be the first manifestation of something more serious. 

Here are some answers to questions that come up about swollen feet. 

What is it?

"Edema" is the term used for fluid build-up in the tissues. It may be confined or localized to one area, such as the legs, or more generalized. 

  • Generalized edema may be associated with many conditions, including heart, liver or kidney disease, sleep apnea, malnutrition, pregnancy/premenstruation and allergic reaction. 
  • Localized edema may be related to deep venous thrombosis (blood clot), bacterial skin infections or leaky veins, as well as certain medications. It's important to notice if the swelling comes on quickly and if it's in one or both legs. Sudden onset in just one leg may be a sign of a blood clot. 

How do I know if I have edema?

Signs of edema, including pitting — leaving a dent in the area after sustained pressure — heavy legs, puffy arms, shiny or discolored skin, or swelling that improves while you sleep and returns during the day. 

What can I do?

In the majority of cases, mild edema takes care of itself and requires nothing more than a tincture of time. For edema that persists: 

  • Leg elevation. This involves raising your legs above the level of your heart. 
  • Compression. Wearing tight-fitting stockings prevents fluid from accumulating in your legs in the first place. 
  • Movement. Pumping your muscles will help move fluid out of your legs. 
  • Salt reduction. Eating less salt (sodium) can have an effect on edema. Processed, packaged and prepared foods tend to be high in sodium content, since salt serves as a natural preservative and flavor enhancer. The American Heart Association suggests a maximum daily salt intake of 2,300 mg, which is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt daily. When possible, prepare your own meals and limit added salt. 

When should I see my doctor?

It's never wrong to consult your health care provider or care team if you notice new swelling. They can help identify causes, review your medications and evaluate you for underlying conditions. This is especially important if you experience difficulty breathing, significant weight gain, chest discomfort or progressive symptoms. 

Dr. Ryan Giddings Connolly is a general internist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). He earned his medical degree from Boston University and completed his residency training in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His interests include palliative medicine and medical education.