Symptoms A-Z

Swollen Calves Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your swollen calves symptoms, including 7 causes & common questions.

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Swollen Calves Symptoms

Why swelling occurs

Swelling is the result of fluid buildup that gets trapped in your body's tissues. Buildup can occur when there is obstruction and fluid cannot properly flow and/or drain. However, fluid buildup can also occur when an area of the body becomes inflamed, injured or damaged. The small blood vessels in the body begin to leak fluid. Moreover, the body can bring in white blood cells to repair the damage, and more fluid follows [1]. Depending on the cause, the swelling can be generalized and occur throughout the body, or localized and only affect a specific part of the body.

Why leg swelling occurs

The legs are gravity-dependent. Gravity pulls blood down to whichever part of the body is closest to the ground so swollen calves can occur as the result of both generalized and localized swelling. Localized calf swelling is easy to identify as the affected leg will appear larger than the other; however, generalized swelling that affects both calves (edema) can be difficult to discern.

Common accompanying symptoms of swollen calves

If you are having trouble deciding if your calves are swollen, take notice of these swollen calves symptoms that are also often associated with this condition:

  • Stretched or shiny skin [2]
  • Skin pitting: Skin that dimples or dents after pressing on the affected area for a few seconds [2]
  • Stiffness or limited range of motion
  • Warmth or redness of the affected area
  • Pain
  • Cramping or soreness
  • Feeling of heaviness or tightness

If you notice any of these swollen calves symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor promptly in order to follow up, get a diagnosis, and receive appropriate care.

Swollen Calves Causes

As stated above, fluid buildup can occur in the case of obstruction.

Leakage of fluid in the legs

In the case of fluid leakage, there are three general mechanisms that can occur that result in fluid buildup in the surrounding tissues of the leg:

  • Excessive force or pressure inside the blood vessels [1]
  • A force external to the blood vessel that can cause fluid to be drawn out [1]
  • Damage or destruction to the blood vessel wall leading to fluid loss [2]

The exact causes behind these mechanisms can be broad, ranging from benign to life-threatening, so it is important to make an appointment with your doctor in order to get appropriate care [1,2].

Systemic causes

Systemic causes of swollen calves include the following.

  • Circulatory: Problems with the heart and its ability to pump effectively will cause blood to back up in the lower body. This causes excessive pressure in the blood vessels that causes damage and further leakage of fluid into the body's tissue [3]. Furthermore, if the veins of the peripheral circulatory system are weakened or damaged, swelling will occur in a similar manner.
  • Lymphatic: The lymphatic system is the body's way of clearing excess fluid from tissues. It is composed of multiple lymph nodes and vessels (lymphatics) that when damaged can cause swelling all over the body, especially the legs and calves.
  • Kidney: The kidney is a regulator of bodily fluid and responsible for filtering and clearing the blood. With kidney dysfunction, filtrate such as proteins, electrolytes and toxins can remain in the blood and act as forces that draw fluid out.

Environmental causes

Environmental causes of may be related to habits or certain exposures.

  • Positional: Since the legs are gravity-dependent, swelling in the calves can result from inactivity due to sickness, sitting or standing for too long at work, and even wearing too tight clothing [4].
  • Medication: Swelling in the calves can be a side effect of many medications that treat common conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and menopause [5].
  • Diet: Diets high in sodium can cause overload of the body's filtering mechanisms. The extra salt in the blood will cause fluid to be drawn out from the vessels causing swelling.

Inflammatory causes

Swollen calves may occur due to inflammatory processes affecting the area.

  • Arthritis: Arthritis includes multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness of the bones and joints. Arthritic processes that affect the knees and ankles can cause irritation that often leads to injury [7,8]. Furthermore, arthritis in the joints of the lower extremity predispose people to inactivity, making swelling even more likely [6].
  • Cysts: Cysts are sacs that can be filled with fluid, air or other material that can form in any part of the body. The body recognizes these fluid-filled structures as foreign and the body often mounts a reparative response that results in swelling around the cyst.

7 Possible Swollen Calves Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced swollen calves. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Congestive heart failure

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is no longer able to effectively pump blood to the rest of the body. Heart failure can affect the right side, left side, or both sides of the heart. It can be subcategorized as "heart failure with preserved ejection f...

Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att...

Acute or worsening heart failure

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can't pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. Heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped or is about to stop working, but rather that the heart is not able to pump blood the way it should. Usually this happens when the heart has been damaged by another medical condition.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath on exertion

Urgency: Emergency medical service

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Nephrotic syndrome

Nephrotic syndrome is a disorder of the kidneys that results in too much protein excreted into your urine. It is usually associated with damaged kidneys specifically damage to the kidneys' filters, called glomeruli.

Kidney damage and nephrotic syndrome primarily include albuminur...

Chronic kidney disease

Chronic kidney disease is long-term damage to the kidneys, the organs responsible for producing urine. Causes of chronic kidney disease include diabetes, hypertension, kidney infections, and inflammatory diseases, medications or toxins, inherited kidney diseases, and pre...

Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. Scar tissue forms because of injury or long-term disease. In the United States, alcoholism and Hepatitis C are the most common causes. Scar tissue cannot do what healthy liver tissue does - make protein, help fight infections, clean the blood, help digest food and store energy.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms:

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Right heart failure (cor pulmonale)

Acute cor pulmonale is also called acute right-sided heart failure and acute RHF. It is the sudden failure of the right ventricle of the heart.

The right ventricle pumps blood out of the heart, into the pulmonary artery, and into the lungs. If the pulmonary artery is blocked, the right ventricle will quickly become overworked and in danger of shutting down. A blood clot, called an embolism, or plaque lining this artery can suddenly cut off blood flow from the heart into the lungs.

Risk factors for acute cor pulmonale include surgery, obesity, smoking, and prolonged immobility. All of these leave the person prone to blood clots and/or plaque in the arteries.

Symptoms include sudden chest pain with rapid heartbeat, pale skin, cold sweat, shortness of breath, and coughing, sometimes with blood.

Acute cor pulmonale is a life-threatening medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, blood tests, echocardiogram, and chest x-ray.

Treatment involves oxygen, diuretics, blood-thinning and clot-dissolving medications, and sometimes surgery.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath on exertion, wheezing, decreased exercise tolerance

Symptoms that never occur with right heart failure (cor pulmonale): severe chest pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Swollen Calves Treatments and Relief

Systemic causes of calf swelling are most often treated with medication.

When to see a doctor for swollen calves

After consulting your physician for swollen calves, he or she may recommend:

  • Diuretics: These are medications, also known as "water pills," that increase the water and salt your body excretes in the urine. This strategy helps reduce the fluid trapped in the body and your calves.
  • Non-inflammatory medications: Your doctor may prescribe this type of medication to combat arthritic processes that are causing swollen calves symptoms.
  • Medication to treat the underlying cause: Swelling is usually the result of systemic issues that require complex treatment plans.

At-home treatments for swollen calves

Fortunately, swelling in the calves can be mitigated by many strategies and remedies you can perform at home.

  • Activity: Moving your legs and staying active can help pump any excess fluid pooling in the legs back toward your heart.
  • Elevate: Place your legs above the level of your heart as much as possible. Elevating the legs during sleep or sitting can help significantly with calf swelling.
  • Compress: Your doctor may prescribe compression stockings for your legs. These garments keep pressure on your limbs to prevent fluid from collecting in the tissue.
  • Protect: Keep your swollen calves clean and free from injury. Dry, cracked skin is more prone to scrapes, cuts and infection.
  • Dietary changes: Reducing salt intake can be an important step in reducing your swelling. Salt can increase fluid retention and worsen swelling in your calves.

When swollen calves are an emergency

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience sudden-onset swelling in one leg associated with pain in your calf muscle. This can be due to a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis, or DVT) in one of your leg veins which is a medical emergency.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Swollen Calves

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • What is your body mass?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen calves

Swollen Calves Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced swollen calves have also experienced:

  • 8% Swelling Of Both Feet
  • 5% Fatigue
  • 4% Swollen Ankles

People who have experienced swollen calves were most often matched with:

  • 50% Acute Or Worsening Heart Failure
  • 28% Congestive Heart Failure
  • 21% Rheumatoid Arthritis

People who have experienced swollen calves had symptoms persist for:

  • 29% Over a month
  • 28% Less than a week
  • 22% Less than a day

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Swollen Calves Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen calves

References

  1. Informed Health Online [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006. NCBI Link
  2. Edema. Cleveland Clinic. Updated October 22, 2018. Cleveland Clinic Link
  3. Sadeghian H, Motiei-Langroudi R. Pitting Oedema in a Patient with Lumbar Disc Herniation. Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. 2017;17(4):e484-e467. NCBI Link
  4. Edema. Cleveland Clinic. Updated October 22, 2018. Cleveland Clinic Link
  5. Sadeghian H, Motiei-Langroudi R. Pitting Oedema in a Patient with Lumbar Disc Herniation. Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. 2017;17(4):e484-e467. NCBI Link
  6. Martin LJ, eds. Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling. Mount Sinai. Updated May 21, 2017. Mount Sinai Link
  7. Lacroix HR, Gruwez JA, Casteels-Van Daele MC, Dequeker J. Lymphedema of the Leg Associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Lymphology. 1991;24(2):68-70. NCBI Link.
  8. Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms. Stanford Health Care. Stanford Health Care Link

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.