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Swollen ankles: causes and cures

Siski Green / 21 February 2017 ( 28 July 2020 )

Find out what's causing your puffy or swollen ankles and what you can do to stop the swelling.

Woman putting her feet up
If you’ve been standing for a long time, or you’ve been on a long walk, when you get home, put your feet up.

Like good health, having slim ankles isn’t something you really appreciate until it’s gone. Find out how to cure swollen ankles with our guide.

Unfortunately swollen feet and ankles become increasingly common as you age, leaving you with sore feet in too-tight shoes and chunky-looking ankles. Find out what you can do to prevent and cure it. 

How to reduce water retention

What causes swollen feet?

Not to be confused with oedema, which is where liquid builds up in the lower leg and foot on a more long-term basis often causing pain, having swollen feet simply means your lower legs and feet have a higher blood volume than usual.

It is a temporary effect. You might notice that you can’t bend your ankle as easily as usual or that your ankles simply look thicker. Thankfully, the swelling itself doesn’t hurt although it may cause shoes to rub.

What your feet say about your health

Need to talk to a GP from the comfort of your own home? Saga Health Insurance customers can talk to a qualified, practising UK GP 24 hours a day by phone. Find out more about our GP service.

What causes swollen ankles?

Too much salt in the diet

Salt is essential for your body as it helps retain water - but it’s exactly this function that can mean eating too much salt can cause swollen ankles.

Potassium, found in bananas and spinach, helps to work as a diuretic and so will help counteract the effect of salt. 

Drink lots of water. It may sound like a counter-intuitive way to reduce liquid in your body but it will help your body to move fluids around and reduce the swelling in your feet. Also, the need to visit the bathroom will ensure you’re up and moving regularly throughout the day.

Sitting for too long

Flying is a common cause of swollen ankles because you tend to stay seated for far longer periods of time than you would usually (and in less comfortable seats than at home!).

However, long periods of driving a car or sitting on a bus or train can have the same effect.

The key here is that lack of movement is causing the fluid to pool in your legs, so if you can, keep moving.

Whenever the seatbelt sign is turned off on a plane, get up and walk around. When it’s on you can lift your legs up one at a time, rotating your feet to get the blood moving.

Similarly, when driving a car, it’s important to stop regularly and have a walk around. 

How just two minutes of exercise an hour can help improve health

Standing for too long

While getting up to walk around on a plane will help reduce swelling, simply standing still won’t.

That’s because standing for long periods of time can also make your lower legs and feet swell up.

Gravity makes it harder for your body to keep the blood from pooling down there, so if you stand up, you’re actually adding to your body’s workload.

Being too hot

When your body gets too warm it dilates blood vessels so it can send more blood to the surface of your skin to help you cool down - a greater skin surface area means more surface area for moisture to evaporate (sweat) and therefore better cooling.

However, this can mean you get swollen feet as that blood tends to pool in lower legs because of gravity.

The cure? Stay out of the heat. And if you do get hot, try to keep your feet up or jump in the pool for a cooling swim. 

How to reduce swollen ankles

Put your travel socks on

Travel stockings or socks work by physically preventing blood from pooling in your lower regions - your lower legs and feet. They are made of strong and tightly knitted material for that reason and fit very tight onto your feet.

You should, however, avoid wearing tight clothing on the rest of your body where you want blood to be able to pass freely and easily. 

Lose some weight

Being overweight or obese puts at your far higher risk of having swollen ankles because your heart has to work that much harder to pump blood around your body.

Furthermore, that extra fat puts pressure on your veins and arteries, compressing them and making them narrower. If you don’t already, try to get at least three sessions of 30-minutes of exercise in a week.

Cut down on sugar and unhealthy fats, and reduce your calorie intake overall, so you can lose weight and take the burden off your heart. 

Do you need to go on a diet? Find out here

Check your medication

There are some types of medication that put you at risk of swollen lower legs and feet as a side effect of the drug.

Calcium-channel blockers, taken for heart blood pressure, can trigger swollen ankles. Nifedipine and isradipine are examples of these types of medications.

Similarly some women on HRT find that a side effect is swollen ankles, and some anti-depressants too, may cause swelling. See your GP to find out whether you can try a different medication.

Don't go off any medication or make changes without consulting your GP.

Injuries and swollen ankles

If you’ve recently suffered an injury in your lower leg or foot, that could cause swelling too. This, however, will usually occur only in one foot.

Be aware, too, that if you’ve recently had varicose vein treatment, one of your legs may swell up slightly more than the other when you’ve been seated for a long period of time, for example. See your GP if you are concerned. 

Living with swollen ankles

It’s quite normal for feet to swell up if you’ve been standing for a long time or you’ve been on a long walk, for example, so as long as the effect is temporary it’s not something to worry about.

When you get home, put your feet up so they’re higher than your heart, which will help some of that pooled fluid find its way back out (thanks to gravity). 

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.