What Causes Swollen Legs and Ankles?
Many people experience swelling in their lower legs and ankles. This can occur for a variety of reasons. For instance, the body’s lymphatic system normally keeps fluid levels in balance. If lymph nodes are damaged or surgically removed, fluid can build up in tissues throughout the body (lymphedema), which may be particularly noticeable in the ankles. Leg swelling is also a common side effect of certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and calcium channel blockers. Additionally, it often occurs during pregnancy as the body increases its blood production to support the growing fetus, which can pressure the veins in the legs. Finally, carrying excess body weight can burden the leg veins, leading to swelling.
With that said, the most common cause of swollen legs and ankles is undiagnosed vein disease. The swelling occurs due to a disruption in the normal flow of blood through the leg veins, resulting in an accumulation of fluid and increased pressure in the affected limb (edema). Usually, edema is painless and worsens as the day progresses. It is often more pronounced after prolonged standing or sitting.
According to the American Vein & Lymphatic Society, an estimated 80 million Americans have vein disease, a complex and potentially serious health issue that requires specialized medical attention. The dedicated team at Vein911® Vein Treatment Center in Tampa, Florida, focuses exclusively on the venous system. Our experienced vascular specialists can provide some helpful insight into the causes, symptoms, and mechanisms behind leg and ankle swelling in the context of vein disease.
Types of Vein Disease That Can Cause Leg and Ankle Swelling
Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) is a common vein disease characterized by weakened or damaged valves in the leg veins. Valves play a crucial role in ensuring that deoxygenated blood flows in one direction: toward the heart. If a valve malfunctions, blood may flow backward and pool in the vein, where it can create pressure that leads to leg and ankle swelling, heaviness, cramping, and varicose veins.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a serious vein disease that occurs when a blood clot forms within a deep vein, often in the lower leg. The clot obstructs the flow of blood, causing pressure to build up in the affected vein. As a result, edema can develop. DVT can also lead to pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening complication that can occur if the blood clot breaks free, travels through the bloodstream, and blocks the flow of blood to the lungs.
The Mechanisms Behind Vein-Disease-Related Leg and Ankle Swelling
Vein disease can cause swollen legs and ankles due to several factors, including:
Inadequate Return of Deoxygenated Blood to the Heart
Normally, the calf muscles contract during movement, helping to push the oxygen-depleted blood in the leg veins back toward the heart. However, in the case of a vein disease such as CVI, a damaged valve inhibits the flow of blood. Instead, blood pools in the vein, where it creates pressure and causes edema as fluid leaks into the surrounding tissues.
Increased Capillary Permeability
Elevated pressure in the leg veins can damage tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the legs. The damage increases the permeability of the capillary walls, allowing fluid and proteins to pass through the walls and leak into the surrounding tissues. This leakage can cause leg and ankle swelling.
Combined with poorly functioning valves, increased pressure in the leg veins can cause turbulent blood flow. This can stress and damage the inner lining of the veins, triggering the body’s inflammatory healing response. Inflammation can further disrupt the normal function of blood vessels and increase fluid retention, contributing to leg and ankle swelling.
Treatment of Swollen Legs and Ankles
The goals of treatment for swollen legs and ankles caused by vein disease are to address the underlying condition, improve vascular health, and alleviate the symptoms. Common approaches include:
- Compression therapy – By applying external pressure to the leg veins, graduated compression stockings can improve blood flow in the legs, which in turn can reduce swelling and discomfort.
- Elevation – Raising the legs above heart level whenever possible can promote the drainage of excess fluid by capitalizing on the effects of gravity.
- Exercise – Low-impact activities such as walking can improve blood circulation and strengthen the leg muscles, aiding in the management of vein disease-related leg and ankle swelling.
- Medications – In some cases, a physician may prescribe medication such as a blood thinner (anticoagulant) to help prevent or treat blood clots associated with DVT.
- Minimally invasive procedures – For more severe cases of vein disease, minimally invasive treatments such as endovenous laser therapy (EVLT™) or ultrasound-guided foam sclerotherapy may be considered to close and eliminate damaged veins, thereby improving blood flow.
- Lifestyle modifications – Lifestyle changes such as achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, staying well-hydrated, and avoiding prolonged periods of sitting and standing can also help manage leg and ankle swelling and improve vein health.
In conclusion, swollen legs and ankles caused by vein disease result from disrupted blood flow and increased pressure in the lower extremities. If you suspect vein disease as the cause of your swollen legs and ankles, it is essential to consult a vascular specialist for a proper diagnosis and tailored treatment plan. Contact Vein911® Vein Treatment Center today to request a consultation with a vein care specialist in Tampa, FL. Early intervention can help prevent complications and improve your overall vascular health.