What causes swollen legs and ankles?

Swollen legs feet and ankles are caused by water retention. When your circulation has problems working against the effects of gravity, your blood collects in the lower part of your body. The extra pressure on your blood vessels makes them leak fluid into the tissues of your legs feet and ankles. This causes swelling, and your skin can become very discoloured;  in severe cases your skin may even weep fluid. Large veins on the surface can become swollen and painful – a condition known as varicose veins.

The technical name for this condition is ‘chronic venous insufficiency’ (CVI) but not all swollen legs are caused by CVI. Get your legs checked by a doctor just in case you have a heart or kidney problem, which can also cause water retention in legs feet and ankles. Swollen legs are also common in pregnancy and are caused by the pressure of the baby on the veins in the pelvis.

Another condition which can cause swollen legs (as well as swelling in other parts of the body) is idiopathic cyclic edema (ICE). ICE occurs mostly in young women after sitting or standing for a long time. Idiopathic simply means “of unknown cause”.

Diuretic Medicines

pills 300x199 What causes swollen legs and ankles?The best treatment for swollen legs  feet and ankles due to a heart or kidney problem is diuretic medicines. These will normally be prescribed by your doctor. If your heart and kidneys have a clean bill of health, then be very wary of taking diuretics. With both CVI and ICE, the fluid that leaks from blood vessels into the tissues carries protein with it. This protein sits in the tissues, drawing water out of your blood. If you take diuretics, you will also urinate more, leaving your blood dehydrated. Your body will adapt by producing hormones which slow down urination,  and this aggravates water retention and makes the swelling worse.

“I haven’t seen my legs this small in a long time”

legs 200x300 What causes swollen legs and ankles?Exercise is important to prevent swollen legs, and your doctor has probably already recommended wearing support or compression stockings. But what is not so widely known is that CVI and ICE can often respond very well to eating the right foods. There are many foods which can help to strengthen the blood vessels in the legs and start to break down the proteins which have leaked into your tissues. Avoiding certain foods can also reduce levels of histamine in your body. Histamine tends to increase the ‘leakiness’ of blood vessels and to aggravate water retention.

Based on these principles, British naturopathic nutritionist Linda Lazarides has written a book which can help you fix these causes of water retention. The book outlines a plan which takes 2-3 months and has had many good reports. Find out more here.

 What causes swollen legs and ankles?

About Linda Lazarides

Linda Lazarides is an international expert on water retention, author of eight books and founder of the British Association for Nutritional Therapy. She has successfully treated hundreds of people referred to her by doctors. See success stories or download E-guide.


  1. Both of megs and feet are retaning fluid. I recently had back surgery to remove an epidural abscess in the L5 area, and Diskitis of L5, and Osteomelitis of the L5 vertebral. They also removed a part of my spine due to infection. I was in the hospital for almost 4 months. I have talked to my Nerologist and he said it is NOT caused from my spine…(In which my MRI still showed swelling in the Spinal Colom) And my Family Doctor said to just keep and “Eye on it” And I’m very concerned about it! My step father had water retention in both of his legs too, and it was caused from a blood clot. what is your opinion as to what I should do next?

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      Tabby it is hard to advise on a condition where the complexities of surgery are involved, and I don’t know what your eating habits are like. All I can say is that 4 months inactivity in hospital can affect the lymphatic drainage so I recommend you ask your doctor about safe ways to getting more exercise to help your lymphatic system work better.

  2. Last Friday at work (sitting at a desk all day) I looked down at my feet and ankles and they were swollen and the tiny veins were everywhere. It is not like that in the mornings but around midday. It scares me because I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I drink plenty of water a day. ??????

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      What you experience is due to the effects of gravity during the daytime. At night your blood will not pool so much in your feet because you are lying down. If you have high blood pressure and cholesterol you are not eating right.

  3. Jeffelyn says:

    Everytime I’m doing my audit work which I spend my time the whole day just sitting, I end up the day with swelling feet and legs. Today, I had tonsilitis and my left upper abdomen is aching, do they related with the swelling of my feet and legs?

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      Jeffelyn, it is very common to get swollen feet and legs if you sit all day without moving. Get up and walk around. Also make sure to read as much as you can on this website about good eating habits. Tonsillitis does not cause swollen feet and legs.

  4. I exercise regularly, eat lots of vegtables and two servings of fresh fruit most days. l also minimize refined carbs (pasta, bread) try to only eat sprouted grain bread, drink lots of water, yet I gain weight and my legs, feet a nd. ankles swell. particularly in warm humid weather and when I sit for long periods, like driving or flying. I am 54 and have many spider veins which I had treated about six years ago. they all came back. I may have facsia issues as I often have sore muscles. the pain and tenderness iny calves has been present sincey 20s. I always thought it was hormonal – pms.

  5. christine says:

    I have full body wide fluid retention I hAve had blood tests which are all negative for autoimmune disorders heart and kidney failure MY legs knees ankles shoulders neck burn constantly – . I have put on 2 stone in 12 months and I know it’s not food related. I am 5 ft.1 and about5 stone overweight.

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      Christine if you think this is water retention I would be glad to work with you to try to find the cause. This takes a lot of tme and work, so please let me know if you would like me to send you my fee information. Alternatively my book the Waterfall Diet (read about it on this website) can help you do some of this work yourself.

  6. I’ve had water retention since about Dec., 2012. My doctor didn’t think much of it. Then, in May, 2013, my daughter took me to the emergency room for water retention (it had gotten worse) and diaharrea. The doctors there found that my heart was beating too fast (160 per minute) so my doctor put me on coumadin and a stay in the hospital for 5 days. Then, 3 weeks after being home, I felt so weak I could hardly move. My daughter took me to the emergency room again and they found that I was bleeding internally from the coumadin. They gave me two units of blood and another 5 day hospital stay and took me off of the coumadin. My feet and ankles looked pretty normal after about a week so I stopped taking the water pill. However, my feet started to swell again so I called my doctor. He said to stay on the water pill. I’m feeling much better now except I tire very easily, probably due to my age. Is water retention ever cured or is this a lifelong problem?

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      This sounds like type 1 water retention, which is related to the heart or kidneys. Without knowing your complete health and diet history I can’t say whether you can be cured, but type 1 water retention does need you to follow your doctor’s advice.

  7. Hi, I am very concerned about the situation of my mother in law. She’s 67 yrs old and weight around 150 kilos. Her both legs are all swelling and water goes out from it. She can’t walk or can’t do anything at home but to sit because she can’t carry herself. She took hormone medicine 45 years ago to conceive but after that she started to gain weight. We bought her to hospital and got confined 3 times. The doctors just give her dextrose antibiotic to treat the infection in her both legs and a kind of medicine to flash all the water inside her body. But after a month her legs starts to have the same problem. We are so desperate to find the solution to help her get heal. Appreciate if you can give me any advise. Che

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      Cherry, the first thing is for your mother in law to take the general health advice on this website. The hormone medicine that she took such a long time ago is probably not causing any current health problems. The weeping of fluid from her legs is most likely heart or kidney-related, which is why she has been given diuretic medicines. Her best option is to become more health-conscious with what she eats and drinks, since this will give her body the best chance to repair itself if possible.

  8. I was diagnosed with a viral infection about ten days ago, after three doctors looking at a rash all over my body, one which was a dermatologist and took a skin biopsy, they all didn’t know what it was but a viral infection and let it run its course. Now, after 14 days, my rash is mostly gone but I have swelling still in my ankles, feet, and hands, and aching pains sometimes in my thighs. I am concerned and don’t know if this is a result of the infection or something more serious. I am going to the doctor again this week.

  9. Michelle says:

    Hi I get really painful and swollen legs knees and ankles when I do a long day at work and especially the 12 hour night shift. I work in a call centre so sitting at a computer screen is what my shift consists of. I’ve been to the doctors but was told to go back when my legs are swollen?? Not possible at the end of a working day to get an appointment just like that. Any advise would be great please.

    • Linda Lazarides says:

      Michelle, a lack of exercise can cause this problem. Sitting for a long time means the lymphatic circulation becomes less efficient at keeping water where it should be in your body. Get up and shake your legs, and wiggle your ankles as much as you can. You may also have unhelpful eating habits, so do try to read the information on this site or get the waterfall diet book.

  10. Henrietta says:

    I had my gallbladder removed on 11th February this year 2015 and since then I have had very bad swollen ankles and feet painful also and my blood pressure has also been high, plus very swollen belly upper and lower abdomen

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