Our bodies often give us warning signs when things aren’t working quite the way they should. From headaches to stomach pains, the discomfort we experience when we are weakened or ill is the body’s way of letting us know that we should be concerned about something.
Very often we experience all sorts of symptoms and know how to recognize them for what they are; a simple cough could mean a cold or flu; swollen feet might be the result of standing or walking on them all day long without any relief.
Yet, it’s increasingly becoming common knowledge these days that simple symptoms likes these can indicate more serious health issues lying below our awareness—sometimes very serious ones. There are, however, ways to recognize when this is the case—very often these symptoms are associated with other telltale signs that, altogether, point to the thing lurking in the background. Catching the early symptoms can sometimes make all the difference in the world.
Swollen feet is the one we’re going to focus on here. The more we stand on our feet, the more they may swell due to the pressure we put on them and the blood that pools down at the lowest parts of our bodies. Some swelling is a normal thing that occurs. When runners buy shoes, they even account for this; most footwear experts recommend sizing up to compensate for it.
Yet, there are instances where this symptom could indicate a more serious problem that shouldn’t be ignored. Here are five reasons that the swelling in your feet may not be something to shrug off—and how to spot the difference:
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between bones starts to erode, often from overuse and repetitive motion. This means that the body’s most frequently used joints—those in the hands, shoulders, hips, knees, and feet—are often the ones affected first, and the ones that can show symptoms the earliest.
Pain is one of the most obvious symptoms of osteoarthritis for obvious reasons, but swelling around the joints is another quick way to spot that something is amiss. The soft tissue around the joint can become inflamed by the friction and pain, and can as a result cause the areas affected by arthritis to swell up.
So if you notice that your feet or ankles are becoming painful when you move them, and the areas around your knuckles and joints are starting to swell up, let your doctor know. There are steroid creams that can help ease the pain and make life more manageable as you try to remain mobile with the condition.
2. Ankle Sprain or Broken Bone
Most athletes have dealt with swollen feet at one point or another, especially if you play a sport that’s particularly unforgiving such as tennis, basketball, or running. But while some foot swelling is normal during heavy exercise, any prolonged swelling isn’t—and can be a sign that there’s actually a lingering injury that needs more than just a day’s rest.
Runners in particular can suffer from a condition called a “stress fracture,” which occurs when too much pressure is placed on the bone due to overuse or rapidly ramped-up mileage. The bone suffers small fractures along the pressure points, which can continue to grow if not treated and eventually cause a full break.
These, along with ankle or foot sprains, can be easily identified by swelling that just doesn’t go down after an exercise is finished. If you finish a run or sporting event and continue to feel lingering pain in a concentrated area in your foot or ankle, especially if there’s swelling accompanying the pain, don’t just ignore it; start by treating it with ice, and let your doctor know if the pain doesn’t subside in time. Continuing to exercise on the affected area can only cause the injury to get worse, and the recovery time will be much longer if you let a stress fracture or sprain continue to worsen.
About 4 percent of the American adult population suffers from gout, a form of arthritis in which unnaturally high levels of uric acid form sharp crystals in a joint that can cause intense and sudden pain.
For the most part, gout isn’t fatal, but chronic gout can cause large clumps of those uric acid crystals called “tophi”—and those can become infected and ultimately be life-threatening. So it’s important to get the condition properly diagnosed and learn how to manage it. This means visiting a doctor as soon as the symptoms start, enabling them to provide a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.
Gout doesn’t always exhibit the same symptoms for everyone, but the easiest way to recognize it is often a sharp pain—often comes at night or after a prolonged illness—accompanied by swelling around the affected area or in the big toe. And while the symptoms can start to ease after a while, there can be subsequent flare-ups in other joints and parts of the body that should leave little doubt that it’s time to give the doctor a call.
If you aren’t pregnant, this one won’t apply to you—but if you have a little one on the way, it’s incredibly important to keep track of your overall health when your feet start to swell up in size.
When a woman is pregnant, her body produces almost 50 percent more blood and other fluids to compensate for all of the additional strain and pressure. There’s a massive increase in blood flow as the new life inside the womb develops, and additional fluids are necessary to help soften the joints to help them expand and to ease the pressure of the rapid weight gain.
This extra fluid—and all the extra work the body has to do—can sometimes cause pooling in the hands and feet, which can make your regular shoes feel uncomfortable and your wedding band feel a little tight. But while a certain amount of swelling is considered perfectly normal, any rapid swelling coupled with a spike in blood pressure can be a sign that the expecting mom is actually experiencing a condition called preeclampsia.
The only way to cure it is delivery, which can sound daunting—but leaving it untreated can cause much bigger health problems for both the mother and the baby. If you notice that your feet have started to swell rapidly and unexpectedly, it’s crucial to let your OB/GYN know and schedule an immediate appointment to make sure all is well.
5. Heart Failure
Possibly the most serious cause of swollen feet is heart failure—but luckily, this symptom can help you identify cardiac problems in the early stages and hopefully get treatment much sooner.
When the heart muscle stops working correctly, either weakening or suffering from artery blockage, it struggles to effectively pump blood throughout the body. This can cause the biggest problems in an individual’s extremities, leaving blood to pool in the hands and feet when the body is unable to properly pump it back up to the heart and out again.
Not all cases of swollen feet are cause for immediate concern. Always look for other warning signs, too; according to the American Heart Association, it’s rare that heart failure will result in only one symptom such as swelling in the extremities. But if your swollen feet aren’t going away and you’re experiencing other symptoms like dizziness, shortness of breath, or chest pains, it’s important to seek care immediately.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.