Read below about swollen calves, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your swollen calves from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Swollen Calves Symptoms

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. 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.

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.

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
  • Skin that dimples or dents after pressing on the affected area for a few seconds (pitting)
  • 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 Overview

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

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
  • A force external to the blood vessel that can cause fluid to be drawn out
  • Damage or destruction to the blood vessel wall leading to fluid loss.

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.

Systemic causes:

  • 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.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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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:

  • 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. Furthermore, arthritis in the joints of the lower extremity predispose people to inactivity, making swelling even more likely.
  • 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.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Swollen Calves

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced swollen calves. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Congestive Heart Failure

    Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a form of heart failure that causes fluid to back up into the lungs and other tissue. Symptoms include trouble breathing and edema (swelling of ankles, hands)

    This is a lifelong condition but symptoms can be managed.

    Top Symptoms:
    cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, cough at night, shortness of breath on exertion
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Rheumatoid Arthritis

    Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in your joints. It can affect any joint but is common in the wrist and fingers. RA is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that it is caused by the immune system incorrectly attacking the joints when it shouldn't.

    RA is a chronic disease which requires lifelong control.

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, joint pain, muscle aches, daytime sleepiness
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.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.

    Outlook is highly variable and depends on the underlying medical condition that caused the heart failure.

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

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  4. 4.Nephrotic Syndrome

    Nephrotic syndrome is caused by different disorders that damage the kidneys. This damage leads to the release of too much protein in the urine, causing the body to swell.

    Varies by cause of Nephrotic Syndrome

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, weight gain, bilateral leg swelling
    Symptoms that never occur with nephrotic syndrome:
    cut on the foot, recent cut or wound, swollen ankle, swelling of one leg
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Chronic Kidney Disease

    Chronic kidney disease, also known as chronic renal failure, is a disorder caused by gradual loss of kidney function. It is most common in elderly individuals.

    This condition cannot be reversed; however, treatment can delay or stop the disease from worsening.

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, decreased sex drive, dry skin
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.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.

    Cirrhosis is a life-long liver condition, but is not expected to lower life expectancy if treated right away and if existing damage is not extensive.

    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Right Heart Failure (Cor Pulmonale)

    Cor pulmonale is known as right heart failure and is often a long-term consequence of high blood pressure or COPD.

    Treatment depends on severity of illness.

    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
    Hospital emergency room

Swollen Calves Treatments and Relief

Treatment for systemic causes of calf swelling are often treated with medication.

Your doctor may suggest:

  • 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.

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.

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience sudden onset of 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

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our swollen calves symptom checker to find out more.

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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 had symptoms persist for:

    • 29% Over a Month
    • 28% Less Than a Week
    • 22% Less Than a Day
  • People who have experienced swollen calves were most often matched with:

    • 50% Acute or Worsening Heart Failure
    • 28% Congestive Heart Failure
    • 21% Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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