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What causes swollen feet and ankles and how to avoid them

Lady completing some light stretches in home setting. To the left of her is a fluffy dog

There are several things that can cause your feet and ankles to become swollen and uncomfortable.

Maybe you have one swollen ankle, or your feet feel puffy and your skin feels tight.

But what exactly causes this to happen? And what can you do to relieve it? 

What causes puffy feet and ankles?

Swelling in the ankles and feet areas are commonly caused by a build-up of fluid, which is otherwise known as oedema.

Oedema occurs when the body stores some water instead of passing it out naturally through urine and sweat.

You can also get this build-up of water in other parts of your body, but it is very common on the feet and ankles. Oedema can be due to a variety of factors.1

The most common causes of oedema are:

The most common causes of oedema are:

  • standing or sitting in the same position for too long - such as sitting at your desk or sitting for a long journey
  • eating too much processed and salty food
  • being overweight
  • hormone changes – foot and ankle swelling often occurs around the time of menstruation2
  • being pregnant
  • taking certain medicines – such as some blood pressure medicines, contraceptive pills, antidepressants or steroids

Oedema may also be caused by:

  • an injury – such as a strain or sprain
  • an insect bite or sting
  • an underlying medical condition

What can help ease swollen feet and ankles?

This very much depends on the cause of the swelling.

If the swelling in your ankles or feet is caused by an injury, the NHS advise you to follow the 4 steps, known as ‘RICE’ therapy, for a couple of days, in order to help bring down the swelling and support the injury.3

Rest

Stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.

 

Ice

Apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes, every 2 to 3 hours.

 

Compression

Wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.

 

Elevate

Keep the area raised, on a pillow, as much as possible.

If you have been bitten or stung by an insect, then raising the affected area and applying a cold compress can help reduce the swelling.4

Find out more about the difference between a sprain and a strain.

 

Lifestyle changes to help avoid swollen feet and ankles

If there is no sign of injury or insect bite or sting, there are several things you can do to help reduce, and even avoid, this swelling and discomfort.

And while there are ways to help reduce water retention, it is also worth noting that it may subside on its own.

You may like to check out our range of water retention tablets to help ease symptoms of mild oedema, as well as our Health Hub article on water retention.

If you regularly have swollen legs, feet and ankles, the following simple lifestyle changes may help reduce the frequency and severity of these uncomfortable episodes.

Reduce your weight to help reduce swollen feet and ankles

Since being overweight can affect your circulation, if you are overweight and suffering with swollen feet and ankles, try to lose weight by following a more balanced diet.5

This, in short, requires you to eat more healthily, cut down on unhealthy snacks and take part in more regular exercise.

Other simple ways to help avoid and ease swelling

Other ways in which you may be able to relieve swelling include:

Gentle exercise

Exercise helps encourage blood circulation, which will help the excess fluid move through your body.

So, take regular walks, or do foot exercises if you cannot fit in a stroll.

And get into the habit of breaking up long periods of sitting or standing with some gentle exercise.

Put your feet up

Get your swollen feet and legs higher than your heart to discourage excess fluid from accumulating.

Cannot lie down on the sofa and pop your feet up?

Even raising your feet onto another chair while you are sitting can help.

Drink more

Yes, really! Fight water with water!

It may seem counter-intuitive, but drinking more water could actually help prevent water retention.

Help your body’s circulatory system function at its best and get rid of excess water by keeping hydrated.6

Watch what you eat

Check the sodium levels in your food. They could be the cause of your swollen feet.

When we eat too much salt, the body retains extra sodium, which increases the amount of fluid in the body, outside of the cells.7

So it makes sense to limit your salt intake.

Eat a balanced diet

Magnesium and potassium have been shown to play important roles in circulatory health and fluid retention.8

If these essential elements are not there to regulate the fluid levels in your body, then you may find you are prone to swollen feet and ankles.

You may find that swelling in your feet, ankles or legs often goes away with these small lifestyle changes. But do see your GP if you have any concerns about your symptoms or their cause.

Last updated: 23 March 2021

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