Swelling is one of the more common human experiences, but it can be uncomfortable, and it can mean our favorite shoes or rings no longer fit. But why do our limbs and appendages balloon up like that? SheKnows talked with Dr. Robert Danoff, a family medicine physician at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, to get a little bit of info on why swelling happens, what we can do about it and when to seek help from a doctor.
Sitting or standing
Yes, most of us spend a lot of our days either sitting or standing up. It can be part of our jobs or life at home, but too much can contribute to puffy feet or swollen ankles. According to Danoff, sitting or standing for hours on end can contribute to a temporary decrease in your body's ability to have quality circulation.
"What happens is that the muscles in your feet, ankles and legs relax and don't contract as much as when you are active," he explains. "This in turn causes the blood flow to and from your feet, ankles and legs to slow down. As a result, a temporary pooling of blood and fluid happens in those areas, leading to some swelling."
To combat this, change positions on a regular basis. Put your feet up or get up and walk around. He says this will help your muscles contract and expand and get your circulation back on track.
Exercise or heat
Exercise or simply being out in the heat can also lead to some puffiness. Danoff says that the heat triggers a cooling response in our bodies, which causes us to sweat, and the blood vessels toward the surface of our skin expand. This results in swelling, so make sure you pop your rings off before you exercise or go out into the heat. Otherwise, you'll probably have to wait until your body cools down to notice a reduction in your swelling and get them off.
Too much salt
Salty foods are yummy, but overindulging may be contributing to your swelling problems, says Danoff. "Most of it comes from bread, fast foods, deli meats, canned food and processed snacks," he explains. "Whether the name is sodium, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, monosodium glutamate or other names, the result is often the same — too much salt can lead to fluid retention."
To combat this, buy items that don't have a ton of sodium on board (this usually means skipping fast-food dinners and processed foods) and watch that saltshaker. Concentrate on other flavors instead of adding more salt, and you might not miss it at all.
PMS… ah, that never-forgotten friend that visits us a week or so before our periods return each cycle. It's chock-full of all sorts of "fun" symptoms, including irritability, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, sore breasts — and swelling, especially in the hands, feet or legs, caused by water retention according to Mayo Clinic. To prevent PMS-induced swelling, it's especially vital to avoid excess sodium during this time, although there are no guarantees you'll be swell-free.
Another cause of swelling is pregnancy, particularly during the second and third trimesters. Hormones abound during pregnancy, which can cause some ligaments and joints to temporarily expand, says Danoff. He also notes that the size and position of the baby can decrease circulation, which can result in swollen hands and feet. Prolonged standing and sitting can exacerbate this problem, and it can become more of a issue toward the end of the day.
Putting your feet up when it becomes noticeable (or beforehand if possible) can cut down on pregnancy swelling, but Danoff says that if swelling in the hands, feet and face comes on suddenly, contact your doctor as soon as possible, as this can indicate a problem.
Medications can help treat conditions or diseases, but some can have side effects — including swelling, says Danoff. "Certain blood pressure medications as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers have the potential to contribute to the side effect of hand and ankle/feet swelling," he explains.
Your doctor or pharmacist can help determine if your medications could be contributing to your swelling, but don't stop taking your medication just because you think it's making you puffy — always speak to your doctor first.
Certain health conditions
While most swelling is temporary and resolves quickly, there are certain health conditions in which swelling is a symptom and should be explored by a physician, Danoff explains.
"There are medical conditions such as lymphedema — the lymphatic system is not working properly — liver, heart and kidney disease as well as diabetes, thyroid disease, arthritis and allergic reactions that can also contribute to swelling of your hands, legs and feet," he says.
Swelling is a normal physiological response to certain conditions, medications, our diets and our hormones, but some cases can require a doctor's knowledge. If you don't have an easily attributable cause (such as heat or PMS), it's important to be evaluated by a doctor. If you have other symptoms, such as pain, fever, shortness of breath, chest pain or rapid development of swelling, he says you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Otherwise, check your salt intake, put your feet up or stand up and walk around at work — it may be just what your swollen hands and feet need.