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Swelling of the legs is abnormal and should be evaluated by a physician if it occurs more than occasionally after a long day of sitting or standing. Swelling may occur due to high pressure in the veins of the legs, local injury, inflammatory changes, obstruction of lymphatic fluid outflow, infection, low blood protein levels, obesity, pregnancy, fluid retention states, or drug effects.
Failure of the calf muscles to pump venous blood out of the legs due to stroke, venous injury, arthritis limiting ankle motion, or inactivity. Localized swelling may be due to trauma, hematoma (collection of non-flowing blood in the soft tissue), infections, fracture, superficial thrombophlebitis (clots in veins of the fatty tissues), rupture of a tendon or muscle, cyst at a joint (such as a synovial cyst at the knee), and, sometimes, spontaneous bleeding into the tissue due to a ruptured blood vessel. Some of the most common medications which cause leg swelling are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs taken for pain relief or for arthritic discomfort and calcium channel blockers taken for heart disease or hypertension.
Cellulitis, infection of the skin and fatty tissues of the leg may cause swelling with pain and tenderness. Swelling of the foot, especially if the skin does not pit with brief application of pressure, may be due to lymphedema, a failure of the microscopic network of channels which move tissue fluid from the extremity back to the blood stream at the level of the upper chest.
After venous insufficiency, obesity is the next most common cause of lower extremity swelling in the United States.
Routine daily use of graduated compression support hose, often rated at a compression level of 20-30 or 30-40 mm Hg. Lymphedema may require special treatments called manual lymphatic drainage to massage the legs over a period of time with wrapping of the legs in special “short-stretch” elastic wraps and, sometimes, compression pump therapy to mobilize lymphatic fluid from the legs back to the bloodstream in the chest by intermittent squeezing of the legs.
Management of swelling of the legs often becomes a lifelong issue, but it is important because swelling will increase the risk of infection or leg ulcer and the underlying conditions may be associated with serious complications such as deep vein thrombosis or difficulty healing injuries or surgical incisions. The most common causes of leg swelling or soft tissue pain or tenderness in North America are venous insufficiency and obesity. Millions of adults have experienced leg swelling at one time or another, for one reason or another. Varicose veins:  Varicose veins are purplish, twisted, rope-like veins that appear under the skin. Hormone replacement or birth control pills:  Many birth control pills and hormone replacement drugs used for menopausal or premenopausal women can cause leg swelling. Medications:  Some medications have also been known to cause venous insufficiency, for the same reasons as hormone replacement drugs and birth control pills. Activity:  In some instances, standing for long periods of time can lead to leg swelling, especially for those who must stand all day for their jobs.



Heart problems:  Some serious medical conditions that involve the heart, such as cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure, can cause severe leg swelling. Kidney or liver failure:  Kidney and liver failures are heavily characterized by leg, ankle, and feet swelling. Blood clots:  Also known as deep venous thrombosis (DVT), some blood clots can cause swelling in legs. If you’ve experienced the kind of leg swelling that lasts for just a few hours or a day, you know that it can hamper your lifestyle temporarily. Pain or tenderness in the legs associated with swelling is an especially important reason to seek evaluation. Further testing is based upon the clinical assessment and may include ultrasound, X-ray,CT, or MRI imaging in the legs or evaluation of the heart or blood vessels in the abdomen or pelvis. The causes of swelling in one leg may be similar to the other leg, but it is not unusual for different factors to cause the swelling in each leg. High pressure in the veins of the legs results in fluid, proteins, and blood cells leaking through the wall of small veins into the soft tissues, especially near the ankles. Pain from cellulitis may be very severe or may manifest as tenderness and mild pain with faintly pink to bright red skin. Frequently, conservative measures are helpful and these often are started before the cause of the swelling is fully evaluated.
Resolving lower extremity swelling, if possible, prior to extremity surgery is an important means of reducing the chances of wound healing complications including bleeding, hematoma, wound breakdown, or infection. There are so many reasons that legs can swell, including but not limited to medical conditions and injury. These can range in seriousness from relatively harmless to severe or even life-threatening. Because they can lead to venous insufficiency, blood flow to lower extremities is restricted, causing inflammation to legs and ankles.
For instance, sitting for long periods of time at a computer for your job, or sitting in front of the computer playing a video game at a long stretch can cause leg swelling. It’s important for anyone experiencing leg swelling to see their doctor as soon as possible, as many causes can be life-threatening and can even lead to death. While some varicose veins aren’t serious, others can be severe and can even lead to serious medical complications from poor blood flow.


While some of the causes of leg swelling may be minor self-limiting conditions, others require very urgent medical care to reduce the likelihood of major complications or death.
The most common failure of diagnosis occurs due to a venous ultrasound study which is performed in a manner to rule out clots, known as deep vein thrombosis, in the deep veins of the legs and does not evaluate for failure of one-way valves in the leg veins (venous insufficiency). Frequently, leg swelling is caused by more than one factor such as venous insufficiency, obesity, and previous saphenous vein harvest for heart bypass surgery. This causes pitting edema, swelling which will leave a temporary indentation in the skin with pressure from a shoe, sock, or intentional pressure such as a squeeze with a finger. Obesity also accelerates the stretching of the leg veins due to the effects of gravity, thus contributing to the progression of venous insufficiency. Chronic swelling of the legs with discomfort or a heavy feeling to the legs often contributes to inactivity which worsens the problem since the calf muscle pumping of blood out of the legs with walking is an important means of getting venous blood back to the heart. Often referred to by healthcare professionals as edema, swelling of the legs can show up one day and disappear the next, or it can occur as an ongoing symptom of something more serious going on within the body. It’s important to note, however, that leg swelling from inactivity has also been known to be severe and even lead to blot clots and death, in cases of prolonged inactivity. And, if you have more questions about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of leg swelling such as spider veins, varicose veins, and other blood circulation issues, contact a vein center to schedule a consultation. Untreated leg swelling may lead to other complications such as infection, poorly-healing wounds, or clots in leg veins. It is common for patients with chronic leg swelling to be told that the ultrasound is “normal” or “was negative for clot” while failing to test for treatable venous insufficiency. The list of causes of leg swelling is quite long, but some of the most common causes include injury or trauma to the legs, inactivity, varicose veins, medications, obesity, hormone imbalance, and medical conditions. Following is more detailed information from vein centers in New Jersey about these common causes of leg swelling, as well as prevention and treatment options.




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