What causes ankle swelling during pregnancy — and what can I do about it?

Answers from Roger W. Harms, M.D.

Various factors contribute to foot and ankle swelling during pregnancy. For starters, your body retains more fluid during pregnancy. Also, your growing uterus puts pressure on your veins, which impairs return of blood to your heart. This can lead to swelling in the legs, ankles and feet. Hormonal changes might play a role as well.

Foot and ankle swelling during pregnancy is common and usually goes away after delivery. In the meantime, it might help to:

  • Stay off your feet. Avoid standing for long periods. When you can, sit with your feet up and occasionally rotate your feet at the ankles. Better yet, lie down with your legs elevated.
  • Sleep on your side. If you can, sleep on your left side. This takes pressure off the inferior vena cava — the large vein that returns blood from the lower half of your body to your heart. It also might help to elevate your legs slightly with pillows.
  • Wear compression stockings. Your health care provider might recommend wearing supportive tights or stockings during the day.
  • Include physical activity in your daily routine. Take daily walks, ride a stationary bike or swim laps in a pool.
  • Stand or walk in the pool. Although there's little research on the use of water pressure for foot and ankle swelling, standing or walking in a pool seems to help compress tissues in the legs and might provide temporary relief from swelling during pregnancy.
  • Stay cool. It might be soothing to apply cold–water compresses to swollen areas.

Some research suggests that foot massages might help decrease foot and ankle swelling during pregnancy. Also, swelling doesn't mean you should cut back on how much you drink. The Institute of Medicine recommends about 10 cups (2.3 liters) of fluids a day during pregnancy.

Although mild foot and ankle swelling during pregnancy is normal, sudden swelling that is painful — especially if it is only in one leg — could be a symptom of a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis). A sudden increase in swelling also might mean that your blood pressure is higher than normal, which could be a sign of preeclampsia. Both conditions require prompt evaluation and treatment.

Aug. 05, 2014 See more Expert Answers