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Why Are Your Ankles Swollen? 9 Causes, Danger Signs, Treatment and FAQs

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When the body holds on to too much fluid, it collects in the legs and ankles due to gravity. Swollen ankles can be caused by pregnancy, heart disease & overuse. Read below on swollen ankles or swelling of one ankle causes and treatment. We will also review the difference between one vs both ankles swelling.

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What does a swollen ankle feel like?

As the day wears on, your feet start to throb and your shoes feel tighter. When you finally get to rest your feet and peel off those socks and shoes, you notice it has happened again. Swollen ankles can be unsightly and uncomfortable. The swelling can be a sign of a problem with the ankle itself or a more serious medical condition. The swelling may be associated with:

Swollen ankles quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swollen ankles.

Take swollen ankles quiz

What causes a swollen ankle?

Swelling in the body is usually a sign of an underlying problem. Sometimes swelling in a sign of inflammation in the affected area, after an injury, for instance. Inflammation is more likely to affect one area or one side of the body. Swelling can also be caused by problems with fluid balance. When the body holds on to too much fluid, it collects in the legs and ankles due to gravity. This is more likely to affect both sides of the body equally. Some common causes of swollen ankles, divided by category, are outlined below:

Fluid problems

  • Vein issues. Your veins drain blood from the ankles and transport it back to the heart. As we age, problems can develop with this system and fluid can build up.
  • Heart disease. When your heart struggles to pump blood (heart failure), the body holds on to extra fluid that can build-up in your ankles and other areas.
  • Liver disease. A damaged or diseased liver, such as cirrhosis or severe hepatitis, can cause fluid retention or leakage into certain areas of the body.
  • Kidney disease. Your kidneys do the complex job of keeping salt, fluid and electrolytes in balance.

Physical causes

  • Overuse. Walking all day or exercising more than usual puts strain on the ankles that may lead to temporary inflammation and swelling.
  • Trauma. Swelling may be the most obvious sign of a broken or sprained ankle that may also be painful.
  • Sitting still. Remaining seating for long periods of time, such as during an airplane ride, allows blood and fluid to pool in the ankles due to the force of gravity.

Other medical concerns

  • Pregnancy. Hormones and other effects of pregnancy make the body hold on to more fluid and reduce venous return from the lower extremities and increase the amount of fluid that collects in areas like the ankles.
  • Autoimmune problems. Certain diseases like lupus increase inflammation throughout the body and may lead to swelling.
  • Blood clot. A blockage in your vein (deep vein thrombosis or DVT) prevents blood from draining from the ankle and may travel to arteries in your lungs if not treated appropriately.
  • Infection. Bacteria can invade the skin around the ankles or the ankle joint itself, leading to swelling that is usually also accompanied by warmth and redness.
  • Medications. Certain pills, such as some kinds of blood pressure medications, make it more likely that fluid will pool in your legs and ankles. Your doctor or pharmacist can tell you the side effects of the medicines you take on a regular basis.

Swollen ankles treatments

If you have some occasional swelling, the good news is that there are several treatments you can try in the comfort of your own home. These common-sense measures can reduce discomfort and get you back on your feet. If the swelling persists for a long period of time or becomes particularly severe or bothersome, then visit your doctor as medications and tests may be in order.

At-home care

  • Get moving. If you’ve been sitting still, get up and use those legs. The contraction of the leg muscles helps push fluid back into the veins and out of your ankles.
  • Rest. On the other hand, if you’ve been on your feet or have injured your ankle, it’s best to take it easy for a few days.
  • Ice. Cold temperatures constrict blood vessels, reduce swelling and can help with discomfort.
  • Elevation. Keep those legs up on a chair or ottoman to counteract the effect of gravity, which naturally pulls fluid down into your ankles.
  • Compression stockings. These tight socks can be worn for several hours to help reduce swelling.

Swollen ankles quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swollen ankles.

Take swollen ankles quiz

Professional treatments

  • Detailed physical examination. Your doctor will examine the area of swelling but will also look for signs of problems with your heart, kidneys, and liver as these can lead to swelling throughout the body.
  • Medication. Certain drugs, such as water pills or diuretics, help the body remove excess fluid in a natural way. Other medicines can treat underlying medical conditions that lead to swelling.
  • Blood tests. These can inform your doctor if your organs are functioning properly and if your medications are having the desired effect.
  • Imaging. An ultrasound or other type of image may be taken of the area of swelling to look for problems like blood clots. (DVT).

Seek help without delay if you have:

  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Severe pain, including chest pain
  • Redness or warmth over the ankle joint
  • Swelling in one leg after sitting still for a prolonged time, such as during plane travel

Questions your doctor may ask about swollen ankles

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • Are you having any difficulty walking?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Hear what 1 other is saying
Ankle swellingPosted December 14, 2020 by P.
I am 80, I work 4 hours every morning M-F and 2 hours on Sat. morning on concrete floors. (I am up and down, etc. I am postmaster) For several years I have had ankle swelling, but not all the time. Sometimes I go weeks with swelling and sometimes weeks with no swelling. Since cold weather, swelling has been staying. Lately, it has been more mostly in one ankle. Toes or not swelled, just ankle joints. I have arthritis, as I was X-rayed once and told something about 2 bones in my ankle and the only way to fix it was fusion. I did not do that. I have a round bump on top of my foot about an inch on from the bend in my ankle. My feet hurt a lot and I have special arch supports, but they help some. I have seen pictures of people with horrible swelling. I am not that bad, I would say medium at least. When I come home from work at noon, I lay down and nap for 1 hour or so and the swelling goes down. Also in the morning when I wake up my ankles are skinny. I am somewhat overweight, not really real obese. My health was excellent at my last checkup 6 months ago. I do have to watch my numbers. I have had high BP for years. Dr is on me to lose weight (20 lbs, and he would be happy with 10), which I can't seem to do. It hurts my feet too much to walk as an exercise.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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