Several years ago I was on a ferry between two Thai islands and got chatting to a girl sitting next to me. She complained of swollen legs and ankles, and when I looked at her more closely, I did notice her puffy feet. It always makes me worried to see someone’s leg swell. I think of all the serious conditions that could be connected with this symptom, including problems with the heart and kidneys, or a blood clot.
Indeed, if your lower limbs become swollen and you have other ominous signs to go with it – such as shortness of breath, fever, bluish skin (cyanosis) and chest pain – head for the emergency department immediately. Also, if one leg looks swollen, while the other one appears normal, see a doctor, as this unevenness could be a sign of deep venous thrombosis. Some prescription medication too can cause swelling, such as birth control pills, anti-depressants and medication for high blood pressure.
In the case of my fellow passenger, the condition was far from dangerous – it was just slightly uncomfortable for her. She happened to spend too much time sitting on trains and buses, and was also adapting to the humid tropical climate, so was feeling slightly dehydrated. She happily continued with her travels and was fine in a few days time.
Every case of swelling needs to be considered in its context to make sure you’re not missing a potentially serious condition. You need to be able to distinguish between harmless swelling and edema. In the case of edema, if you press on the puffy area, it stays pitted for a few seconds after. This could be a sign of heart, liver or kidney problems.
Very often leg swelling can be prevented by some simple measures and DIY techniques. Here are some examples you can follow to prevent the swelling, or to return to your previous swelling-free self:
1. Exercise! Exercising stimulates blood circulation and prevents the blood from pooling in your lower extremities. If you’re suffering from painful or inflamed legs, swimming can be the perfect solution. When you float, the impact is taken off your feet, which eases the discomfort. So find a pool, or take a dip in a nearby sea or lake. If you do yoga, go for the postures that make you lift your feet above the head. This is called an inversion and has many health benefits, including improved immunity and digestion. So start with your headstand as soon as you notice your feet swelling… and experience the thrill of it.
2. Elevate your legs. If you’re not quite ready for the headstand yet, try elevating your legs by putting them on a higher surface so that they are above the heart. Do that for 30 minutes, three times a day, and observe the difference. When you’re in bed, put a pillow under your ankles. This will help drain the excess fluid, so it can then get absorbed in the body, or is eliminated with urine.
3. If you sit for long periods of time, get up and walk around a bit. When your boss asks you what you are up to, explain that you are just trying to prevent your feet from swelling. Walking for 10 minutes, three times a day, should be enough to keep your tootsies healthy and happy.
4. When you travel, consider wearing compression socks. I know that they can be difficult to put on, but they do serve their purpose. They help the blood vessels with their elasticity, so that the blood doesn’t pool in your legs. Plus, they prevent varicose veins. Consider wearing them on long-haul flights and on long bus and train journeys. My travelling friend would certainly benefit from wearing them. Also, support/compression socks or stockings can be good for you if you’re already suffering from leg inflammation.
6. Stop smoking! Smoking is one of the top 10 habits to stop right now if you want to be healthy. I know, easier said than done. But think of all the rewards that come when you stop smoking. Having your feet less swollen is just one of them. Also, smoking is related to many (more serious) underlying conditions that can cause lower limb swelling.
7. Drink plenty of water. We are all guilty of often not drinking enough fluids. By drinking water throughout the day, we hydrate our tissues and detox the body. Sodium and caffeine, which contribute to feet inflammation, get diluted if we water ourselves sufficiently. Eight to ten glasses a day should be the norm. Drink more if you had some alcohol. So make sure you carry that water bottle with you. For added antioxidant value, squeeze some lime or lemon in or prepare your own flavored water.
8. Massage the painful area. Or even better, make someone else do it for you. Massaging your feet is extremely relaxing and improves your blood circulation. Use gentle but firm motions, and always go in the direction of the heart.
9. Soak your feet in Epsom salt and feel the bliss. I’ve written in the past about the great uses for Epsom salt, and I’m sure your legs and feet will appreciate the attention. If you feel like indulging yourself completely, add a few cups of sea salt to your bathwater and soak your whole body. Essential oils can help alleviate pain and discomfort too. Some popular choices are peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon and lavender that are all known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
10. Take magnesium supplements. Often feet inflammation, which can result in painful swelling, is connected to magnesium deficiency. A dose of 350 mg a day can make a difference, but always talk to your doctor before taking any supplement.
Keep your legs healthy and pain-free. Remember how well they’ve been serving you over the years, and return the favor!