What Can Cause Ankle Swelling?

Medically Reviewed By Emelia Arquilla, DO
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Ankle swelling is a sign of fluid buildup or inflammation of the ankle joint and tissues. Mild ankle swelling is a common occurrence after standing or sitting for a long time. Swelling, or edema, of the ankles also can result from serious infections, trauma, heart or circulatory disorders, and eating too much salt. Certain medications may cause your ankles to swell.

One or both ankles may swell for a short time, such as after standing for a long time or sitting during a long airline flight. Pregnancy, being overweight, and vascular problems can cause ankle swelling. Orthopedic conditions, such as a bone fracture or a sprained ankle, may cause swelling.

Swollen ankles can also indicate a potentially serious or life threatening disorder, such as congestive heart failure. You should seek prompt medical care and talk with your medical professional about your symptoms.

If you experience ankle swelling with chest pain, dizziness, lightheadedness, confusion, or any difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical care (call 911).

Read on to find out more about what can cause ankle swelling and when to seek medical help.

What can cause ankle swelling?

a person has a swollen ankle
Ibai Acevedo/Stocksy

Ankle swelling can be the result of relatively minor conditions or serious ones. Injury, infections, inflammation, trauma, and heart disease may cause your ankles to swell.

In some cases, ankle swelling is a symptom of a life threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting.

Injury-related causes of ankle swelling

Ankle swelling can occur from the following injuries:

Ankle sprains and treatment

Ankle sprains are a common injury for people of any age. A fall or twisting or rolling the foot during activity may result in a sprain.

A sprain means that the ligaments in the ankle have torn because they have been stretched too far. Sprains can be mild, moderate, and severe.

Most of the time, sprains do not require surgery. Even more severe sprains can heal fully with proper immobilization. However, contact your doctor if you believe you have sprained your ankle. Proper treatment can prevent complications.

Methods for treating a sprain at home include:

  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • resting the ankle
  • applying ice
  • elevating the foot
  • applying a compression bandage to the swelling

Infectious, inflammatory, and autoimmune causes of ankle swelling

Swollen ankles can accompany infectious, inflammatory, and autoimmune conditions, including:

ConditionExplanationOther symptoms
amyloidosisa group of conditions that cause protein to build up in the body, more common in people over age 40muscle weakness, fatigue, pins and needles, memory difficulties, diarrhea, swelling in the tongue
bursitisinflammation of the bursa, which are sacs of fluid near joints in the body, usually due to excessive pressureflushed skin under the heel, pain and swelling in the foot, especially during weight bearing activities
gouta buildup of uric acid crystals in the jointssevere pain, especially when sleeping; continuous soreness and discomfort; flushed skin; fatigue
infectionany type of infection in the ankle, including infected wounds or insect bitesflushed skin, warmth, oozing pus
osteoarthritisthe most common type of arthritis, can affect any joint, including the anklepain or aching during activity, joint stiffness after resting, clicking or popping joints, weakness, joint instability
rheumatoid arthritisthe body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, usually affects multiple jointspain, aching, tenderness, and stiffness in multiple joints; weight loss; fever; fatigue
septic arthritisjoint infection, usually a bacterial type, usually affects one larger joint but can affect several smaller joints at oncesudden, severe joint pain; fever; swelling; difficulty moving the joint
lupus a chronic condition that can cause different parts of the body to swelljoint pain, skin rashes, fatigue, ulcers, hair loss, weight loss, swollen lymph glands

Cardiovascular causes of ankle swelling

Ankle swelling may result from disorders related to the circulatory system, such as:

ConditionExplanationOther symptoms
cardiomyopathya group of conditions causing thickened, weakened, or otherwise irregular heart muscle and functionshortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, palpitations, fainting
cardiovascular diseasedisorders of the heart including heart attack, stroke, and heart failure, which may be the result of atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries chest pain, shortness of breath, fainting, difficulty speaking, heart palpitations
deep vein thrombosisa blood clot that forms in the legtender, swollen, flushed skin; pain; irregular heartbeat; chest pain; difficulty breathing
endocarditisan infection inside the heartrapid or slow progression of fever; chills; sweats; headaches; difficulty breathing; small dots on the skin
Kawasaki diseasea rare condition involving blood vessel inflammation, most common in childrenrashes; bloodshot eyes; swollen lymph nodes; red, swollen lips; irritability; peeling fingers and toes
pericarditisinflammation of the lining that surrounds the heartsharp chest pain, pain in one or both shoulders, fever, weakness, difficulty breathing, cough
peripheral arterial diseasenarrowing or blockage of the arteries from a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery wallsleg pain while walking, cramping while lying down, coldness in the legs or feet, sores, changes in toenails
varicose veinsswollen, usually blue veins that often occur in the legsaching, heavy feeling in the legs, muscle cramps in the legs,
dry skin, color changes in the legs

Medications that can cause ankle swelling

Always tell your doctor of any medications or treatments you are using. These include prescription and over-the-counter medications, supplements, and herbal or alternative treatments.

The following medications may cause ankle swelling:

  • blood pressure medications
  • birth control pills
  • hormone therapy
  • antidepressants
  • steroids

Before stopping any medications you take, discuss it with your doctor.

Other causes of ankle swelling

Other conditions or factors that can lead to swollen ankles include:

When should I contact a doctor for ankle swelling?

Ankle swelling that occurs with certain other symptoms might indicate a serious or life threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone with you, has swelling and symptoms such as:

How do doctors diagnose ankle swelling?

To diagnose the underlying cause of ankle swelling, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask questions about your symptoms. These include:

  • What is the exact location of the swelling?
  • Describe the swelling. When did the swelling start? Does it come and go, or is it constant?
  • Are any other body areas swelling?
  • Are you experiencing any pain, shortness of breath, or other symptoms?

In addition to complete answers to these questions, you should provide your full medical history. This includes all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, and family history. Also provide a complete list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.

How can I treat ankle swelling?

For minor causes, such as standing for long periods of time, try to relieve the swelling at home by:

  • raising your legs
  • walking, or doing other gentle exercises
  • wearing wide, comfortable shoes
  • washing, drying, and moisturizing your feet

You should speak to a doctor if you are concerned about your ankle swelling or are experiencing other symptoms. The appropriate course of treatment will depend on diagnosing the cause.

Summary

Ankle swelling may be due to standing for extended periods of time or sitting during a flight. Swelling may also signify an injury to the ankle, a condition relating to the heart, or an infectious, inflammatory, and autoimmune disorder. Examples include arthritis, a sprained ankle, or an infection of the heart muscle.

Identifying other symptoms and recent injuries can help you and your doctor understand what is causing the ankle swelling.

Treatment for ankle swelling will depend on its cause.

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Medical Reviewer: Emelia Arquilla, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 May 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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