Leg Swelling

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is leg swelling?

Leg swelling is a sign of fluid buildup or inflammation of the tissues or joints of the leg. Swelling can occur anywhere along the leg, including the thighs, knees, calves, ankles and feet. Mild swelling is a common occurrence after standing for a long time, especially in warm weather.

Leg swelling, which is also called edema, can result from serious infections, trauma, circulatory disorders, cardiac (heart) disorders, and other abnormal processes.

The influence of gravity on human anatomy affects the lower extremities differently than the upper extremities. Extreme leg swelling caused by poor circulation may appear minimal (or absent) in the arms. For the same reason, minimizing the amount of time spent standing and maximizing time reclining can often alleviate this type of leg swelling.

Depending on the cause, leg swelling can last for a short time and disappear quickly, such as when it occurs after standing for a long time or sitting during a long airline flight. Chronic leg swelling, or leg swelling that builds up over time, often indicates a potentially serious disorder, such as congestive heart failure or cardiovascular disease. Leg swelling can also be caused by orthopedic conditions, such as a bone fracture or a cast that is too tight.

Because leg swelling can be a symptom of a life-threatening condition, you should seek prompt medical care and talk with your medical professional about your symptoms. If you experience leg swelling with chest pain, dizziness, confusion, shortness of breath, or any difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical care (call 911).

What other symptoms might occur with leg swelling?

Leg swelling may be accompanied by other symptoms depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, leg swelling due to congestive heart failure may occur with shortness of breath. Leg swelling due to an infection may be accompanied by fever, redness and warmth around the affected area.

Symptoms that may occur along with leg swelling

Leg swelling may occur with other symptoms including:

  • Joint stiffness
  • Painful or tender areas
  • Reduced range of motion or movement in a joint
  • Varicose veins

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, leg swelling may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have swelling along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Calf or extremity pain
  • Chest pain, which may be dull, heavy or sharp and piercing
  • Confusion
  • Increased or decreased urine output
  • Red and warm skin
  • Unexplained weight gain (may be from excessive fluid buildup)

What causes leg swelling?

Leg swelling can be caused by relatively minor conditions, such as standing for too long. Leg swelling can also be caused by a wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions that include infections, inflammation, trauma, heart disease, and other abnormal processes.

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

Injury-related causes of leg swelling

Leg swelling can occur from injury-related conditions including:

  • Bleeding
  • Broken bone or leg injury
  • Loose fragments of bone or cartilage within a joint space
  • Muscle, ligament, or cartilage injury,  such as a torn ligament or pulled muscle

Infectious, inflammatory and autoimmune causes of leg swelling

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

  • Infection
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

Cardiovascular causes of leg swelling

Leg swelling can also be caused by disorders related to the circulatory system including:

  • Cardiovascular disease (due to atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries)
  • Heart failure
  • Pericarditis (infection of the lining that surrounds the heart)
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, which is a narrowing or blockage of arteries due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery walls, which limits blood flow to the extremities)

Other causes of leg swelling

Other conditions or disorders that can lead to swollen legs include:

  • Being overweight
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Hyponatremia (very low sodium, which is a life-threatening condition)
  • Kidney failure
  • Lymphatic obstruction

Medications that can cause leg swelling

Always tell your doctor about any medications or treatments you are using, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, supplements and herbal or alternative treatments. The following medications may be a possible cause of leg swelling:

  • Antidepressants, such as tricyclics and MAO inhibitors
  • Hormone therapy
  • High blood pressure medications
  • Steroids

Questions for diagnosing the cause of leg swelling

To diagnose the underlying cause of leg swelling, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. You can best help your health care practitioner in diagnosing the underlying cause of leg swelling by providing complete answers to these questions:

  • Have you experienced a recent animal or insect bite?
  • Have you recently traveled outside the United States?
  • 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?
  • Provide your full medical history, including all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a complete list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.

What are the potential complications of leg swelling?

Complications associated with leg swelling can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because swelling can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to visit your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent swelling or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can lower your risk for potential complications of these conditions including:

  • Chronic disability
  • Heart failure
  • Joint instability
  • Liver failure
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 19
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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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