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Leg Swelling


Leg swelling is a very common symptom that many of us experience during the course of our lives. It can be found to occur in essentially any part of the leg ranging from the feet all the way up to the thighs. The underlying etiology of leg swelling typically stems from either a fluid buildup problem (fluid retention) or from an inflammatory issue in an injured or diseased tissue or joint.

There is an extensive list of potential causes of leg swelling. Some causes like an acute injury or a history of prolonged sitting or standing, are quite common and easily identified and treated. On the other hand, sometimes leg swelling can be a symptom of a much more serious medical condition, like a heart problem or even a blood clot.

A person should seek medical care immediately if they notice that their leg is swelling without an obvious cause. The urgency for immediate medical attention only increases if the leg swelling is associated with acute leg pain, breathing problems or chest discomfort. All of these symptoms can be a warning sign for an acute heart condition or even a blood clot in the lungs. All of these are severe medical conditions that need to be evaluated by a physician ASAP!


As mentioned before, leg swelling is a medical condition with many underlying causes. Some causes are benign (not dangerous) and others can be life threatening in nature (deadly). There are generally two types of causes. A fluid buildup or retention problem is one of these causes with the other being an inflammatory condition.

Leg swelling due to a fluid buildup problem

“Peripheral edema” is a medical term used by many medical professionals to refer to leg swelling secondary to fluid retention. The most common benign causes of peripheral edema are usually seen in people who are obese, inactive, sit and stand for prolonged periods of time, and or people who wear constrictive clothing like tight jeans or stockings.

In cases where the underlying cause of the leg swelling is less apparent, the leg swelling in the eyes of the physician now becomes more of a real medical problem. In these cases, the leg swelling most commonly originates from a dysfunction in the venous circulatory system, the lymphatic system or the kidneys.

Factors that may cause fluid retention include:

  • Cardiomyopathy (a problem with the heart muscle)
  • Renal failure (your kidneys are not working properly)
  • Varicose vein disease (a defect in the venous circulation causing fluid to pool in legs and making it difficult for the veins to return blood back to the heart)
  • h/o Chemotherapy (Some cancer drugs can damage or affect your kidneys, heart and other organ systems)
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
  • Cirrhosis of liver (damage to liver due to some medical issue)
  • Nephrotic syndrome (the filtration system in the kidneys are damaged)
  • Lymphedema (there is a defect in the lymphatic circulation’s ability to transport lymph fluid)
  • Heart failure (the heart is unable to pump blood adequately)
  • Pregnancy
  • Lung disease (damage to the lungs can make it difficult to pump blood thru the lungs causing fluid to back up)
  • Prescription medications (Excessive use of some prescription medications can cause kidney and heart problems)
  • Prolonged standing/sitting
  • Thrombophlebitis (a blood clot in a leg vein)
  • Pulmonary Hypertension (an increased pressure in the lungs making it difficult for the heart to pump)

Leg swelling caused by inflammation

The second medical condition that gives rise to leg swelling is an underlying inflammatory process in the soft tissue or joints of the leg. This inflammation can be the body’s normal response to an injury, or it can be a response to an acute or chronic medical condition like rheumatoid arthritis. The presence of inflammation will result in the person feeling some level of pain and or discomfort.

Inflammatory conditions include but are not limited to:

  • Varicose vein disease (there is a local inflammatory process in the varicose vein)
  • Ligament or broken bone (any acute tendon tear or broken bone will elicit an immediate inflammatory response)
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (an autoimmune disease whereby your body’s own immune system attacks your joints causing inflammation and destruction of the joint.)
  • Thrombophlebitis (an acute blood clot in a varicose vein in the leg causing inflammation and swelling)

When to see a doctor

As mentioned above, the presence of leg swelling can suggest many things. Some causes of leg swelling are benign (not harmful), while others can be life threatening. Any time you notice leg swelling, it is always important for you to seek medical evaluation at some point to make sure that there is not an underlying medical condition that you are unaware of. That being said, you should seek IMMEDIATE medical care if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain at rest or with physical exertion
  • Difficulty breathing while sitting, standing or lying flat in bed
  • You feel dizzy or want to faint
  • Acute bleeding
  • Coughing up blood
  • Acute leg swelling without an obvious cause
  • Trauma
  • If only one leg acutely swells or is pale and cool to the touch

All of these symptoms can potentially indicate a LIFE THREATENING condition that needs to be evaluated and treated IMMEDIATELY! Do not wait to pass GO. Your life may depend on it.

If you have leg swelling that has been gradually worsening over time, make an appointment to see your doctor for a checkup. Let them know that you are starting to develop leg swelling so that they are aware of why you are there. Prior to your visit, you should consider:

  • Restricting your salt intake
  • Wear compression stockings
  • Try elevating your legs when you sleep to see if the swelling resolves
  • Do not stop any of your prescription medications unless your physician tells you to do so.
  • If you have a sitting or standing job, try to move around more while at work
  • If you have varicose veins or spider veins, seek an evaluation for your vein disease

When to see a Vein doctor

One of the potential causes of leg swelling is Varicose vein disease. This condition is not the “cosmetic” issue many people believe it to be. In fact, vein disease is a progressive medical condition that will gradually damage your venous circulatory system. Vein disease will eventually impede your body’s ability to return venous blood back to your heart. Blood will start to pool in your leg veins causing not just the varicose veins and spider veins that you see, but it can also cause leg pain, swelling, cramping, restlessness, and even non-healing ulcers. If you have noticed that you are having leg pain and swelling in your legs that your doctor just cannot explain, call us at 314.842.1441 today for your free consultation. You do not have to live with leg pain or swelling. Let our staff of vein experts help you and your legs live a healthier life.

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