Swollen ankles causes and treatment

Feet and Ankles

14 August 2019

Swollen ankles can be unsightly, uncomfortable and can cause some distress. Getting to the bottom of what’s causing the swelling is important in order to treat the problem effectively. For example, in excessive heat, after a long-haul flight or a busy day on your feet, a build-up of fluid, known as oedema, in the lower leg and ankles is not uncommon. Simply resting, with your foot elevated, should be enough to help drain the swelling away.

There are, however, many different reasons for ankle pain and swelling, which may call for a different approach. Here is a guide to 7 common causes of pain and swelling in the ankles and what steps can be taken to alleviate the symptoms.

1. Ankle or foot injury

Injury to your foot or ankle can cause, bruising and swelling which can be reduced by elevating the foot, resting the limb and applying ice packs to the area to further reduce swelling. A compression bandage may also help. When using the cooling method, there should always be fabric between your skin and the cold pack to prevent skin damage. Cool therapy should be applied for a maximum of 20 minutes at time, and do not use this method if you are going to sleep because you don’t want to leave the cold pack on too long. If pain or swelling is severe or if treatment above doesn’t work seek medical advice.

2. Infection

Swelling can also occur where there is an infection present, usually in the layers of the skin as a result of a cut or bite. People with diabetes are particularly prone to infections as a result of their nerves being affected which reduces the pain sensation usually felt when you have an injury, bite or cut. Infection may set in because of slow diagnosis of the cut, bite or wound. Medical advice should be sought if infection is suspected.

3. Poor circulation of the lymphatic system

The lymphatic system helps clear the body of substances that can cause infection and if there is a blockage to the area, or lymph nodes have been removed, this can cause fluid to pool and not be drained away. Lymphoedema (build-up of the lymphatic fluid) tends to be more noticeable in the arms, legs and feet. This can sometimes be eased by doing some exercises to improve circulation.

4. Poor circulation of the venous system

Swelling can occur as a result of the blood not being able to circulate around the body freely, for example, if you have varicose veins. If the blood is restricted in any way then it is possible for pooling of the blood to occur and this is generally seen in the ankle and foot areas. Older people often get swollen ankles if they spend long periods sitting with their legs down.

5. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or blood clot

A blood clot in the leg (DVT) can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms vary considerably. It often causes swelling and pain in the calf and swelling but this is not always the case. There is an increased risk of developing a blood clot following immobility, infection, smoking, dehydration and use of some medications. A DVT is a potentially fatal condition and needs immediate medical attention.

6. Health issues affecting the heart and kidneys

Fluid retention can occur if the kidneys or heart are not functioning effectively. Tests will need to be done in order to exclude medical problems such as diabetes and heart or kidney concerns. Swollen ankles accompanied by feeling tired or breathless on exercise, breathlessness lying down or waking up in the night gasping for breath, should be taken seriously and you should see your doctor.

7. Medication

Some medications can affect the way the kidneys function and this can lead to a build-up of fluid too. If this is the case, your doctor should review any prescribed medication. Examples of drugs which may cause ankle swelling include a group of blood pressure lowering medicines called calcium channel blockers and steroids.

Further steps

As mentioned there are many possible reasons for ankle pain and swelling so we suggest that you visit your GP for an assessment to see what is causing this for you. Investigations that may need to be carried out to ascertain cause may include blood tests, scans and x-rays.

Treatment such as medications, exercise, losing weight and physiotherapy may also need to be considered.

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