Leg swelling can affect any part of the leg such as the thighs, calves, ankles, and feet. It can either be caused by accumulation of fluid in the tissues (edema) or from inflammation caused by injury or disease of the joints and leg tissues. There are many possible causes of swelling in the legs such as prolonged standing, sprains, or bone fracture and it is important to seek prompt medical attention once leg swelling occurs especially when accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain or difficulty in breathing to that appropriate treatment can be given. Although swelling in the legs is generally harmless, some conditions that cause edema are quite serious and could be an indication of a heart problem or a blood clot in the legs.
Causes of Leg Swelling
Swelling in legs can be caused by buildup of fluids in the leg tissues or due to inflammation. Leg swelling brought about by accumulation of fluids in the tissues of the legs is also known as peripheral edema. There are different body systems and organs involved in the maintenance of fluid balance in the body and any problem in any of these systems can lead to fluid buildup. Aside from the kidneys, the circulatory system and the lymphatic system play a role in maintaining the balance of fluids in the body. Kidney failure, heart failure, and thrombophlebitis (a condition wherein there is a blood clot in the vein, usually in the legs) can all cause leg swelling.
Swelling in the legs may also be caused by inflammation as a response to a disease or injury. Leg swelling that is caused by inflammation is usually accompanied by symptoms of leg pain such as in sprains, fractures, and wounds. Some diseases also cause swelling and pain in legs such as gouty arthritis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Leg Swelling and Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition of the heart where in it is no longer able to pump blood efficiently. This causes fluid to accumulate in different parts of the body including the lungs and liver. Heart failure causes blood to back up in the blood vessels of the body because the heart is unable to pump hard enough to supply blood through the whole body. The heart is unable to pump blood fast enough to meet the blood supply coming from the venous system and it causes fluid accumulation in the organs and tissues in the body. Swelling is often obvious in the ankles and feet of an individual with congestive heart failure.
Swelling in the legs can be caused by different factors but when it comes to heart problems, an individual will usually notice other symptoms accompanying leg swelling that are indicative of a heart condition. CHF can affect either side of the heart and the symptoms depend on the side affected. In left-sided CHF, symptoms include shortness of breath and pulmonary edema or fluid accumulation in the lungs. In right-sided CHF, symptoms are usually systematic such as weight gain, edema in the legs, hepatomegaly (enlargement of the liver), and ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity).
Edema caused by congestive heart failure, especially right-sided CHF, is usually a pitting edema. This means that when a finger is pressed into the foot or ankle of a person with edema, the finger will leave an imprint. Non-pitting edema in swollen legs is most likely caused by other reasons than congestive heart failure.
Getting Medical Assistance
It is important to go to the emergency room or call your local emergency number if you experience symptoms of a serious heart condition along with swelling in the legs. Symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, fainting, and difficulty in breathing are signs of a heart problem that may require immediate treatment to prevent complications. Leg swelling caused by injuries to the leg also needs immediate medical attention. Other problems associated with swelling of the legs may not need emergency care but may still need to be checked by a doctor as soon as possible especially in cases of blood clots in the legs.
Some symptoms, no matter how mild, can indicate a more serious problem in the body. Seeking the advice of a doctor as soon as possible can help prevent further problems from developing and can limit the extent of damage to the body. Leg swelling can be caused by standing up too long but it can also be a sign of a problem in the heart or kidneys.