How to Cope With Swollen Ankles

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You may have heard someone complain about having "cankles." The word "cankle" is not a medical term, but rather a popular slang term that combines the words "calf" and "ankle." It refers to an area of the lower leg where the ankle and the calf come together. The term describes ankles that are swollen, making them hard to distinguish from the calf muscles.

Swollen ankles can be caused by medical conditions like cellulitis, congestive heart failure, and, in pregnant people, preeclampsia. But they can also be caused by mild problems like pooling of blood in the ankles sitting too long, premenstrual syndrome, and, according to investigations published in Annals of Family Medicine, even seasonal changes during summer weather.

Why Do I Have Swollen Ankles?

So how do you know if you have swollen ankles? In a typical leg, the ankle area is thinner than the calf. But the legs of people with swollen ankles are different. People with swollen ankles have a calf and ankle area that are about the same size. There is almost no calf definition and the lower leg looks fuller than normal.

So are swollen ankles normal? Sometimes they are. You might have swollen ankles because your parents had them. But there are different causes of swollen ankles and some might indicate an abnormal medical issue.

Painless swelling, or edema, in the ankle area may happen if you are experiencing normal hormonal fluctuations. You might also notice ankle swelling after sitting for a long time in a car or airplane. Certain medications may cause swelling in the ankle area and it may also happen after certain types of surgery.

Another word for swelling is edema. Edema is any swelling caused by excessive fluid collecting in your body's tissues.

But edema in the lower leg may also indicate a problem. Foot, leg, and ankle swelling may be caused by a blood clot, a leg infection or when veins cannot properly pump blood back to the heart. Swollen legs may be also a sign of heart failure, kidney failure, or liver failure.

If you are concerned about swelling in your lower legs or if you notice an increase in swelling, talk to a healthcare professional. If your swelling is accompanied by chest pain or shortness of breath, call 911.

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Swollen Ankles

If you've ruled out a serious medical problem, you may be wondering if it is even possible to get rid of swollen ankles. There are a few things that might help to reduce the puffy appearance in your lower legs. 

Reduce Foods With Saturated Fat

High-fat foods are also foods that are high in calories. Fat provides nine calories per gram. Carbohydrates and protein only provide four calories per gram. It's essential to maintain adequate amounts of healthy fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.

In addition, many foods high in saturated fat are also high in sodium. Fried foods are a good example. When you reduce the amount of salt and saturated fat in your diet, you may notice that your swelling improves in just a matter of weeks.

Reduce Sodium

Sometimes swollen ankles are caused by diet-related swelling. For example, if you eat a diet high in sodium, you may retain water all over your body. You may notice it more in the ankle area. There are some natural herbs (like parsley) that help reduce water weight, but you can also eat fewer processed foods and put away the salt shaker to reduce the sodium in your diet.

Reduce Starchy Carbohydrates

Another smart diet change is to check your starchy carb intake. Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet. But if you eat a diet higher in starchy, sugary foods, you may retain more water. If you balance your macronutrients (get enough protein, healthy fat, and nutrient-rich carbohydrates) you might notice a loss of water weight, which reduces edema.

Walk More

Get an activity tracker or pedometer and boost your step count. Walking is an excellent exercise for everyone, but it is especially good for people with ankle edema. Walking improves circulation in the legs and helps build up the calf muscles. When the calves are more prominent and tighter, the ankles look smaller.

Eat More Vegetables

At mealtime, cut your meat portion in half and double the amount of veggies on your plate. Why? First, you'll cut the calories in your meal when you fill up on low-calorie roughage. And you'll probably also reduce your salt intake when you cut the amount of meat you eat. Lastly, the fiber in the vegetables lead to an increased sense of satisfaction after meals.

Exercises to Reduce Swelling

Even if you don't change your diet, there are simple exercises that you can do throughout the day to help increase circulation in your legs and shape the muscles and reduce the appearance of swollen ankles.

The great news is that you don't have to get sweaty or go to the gym to do many of them. Do a few of these exercises when cooking dinner, talking on the phone, or folding laundry to shape leaner legs.

Calf Raises

In a standing position, lift your heels off the ground so that you are standing on the balls of your feet. Hold on to a chair or countertop for balance if necessary. Do 7-10 repetitions. As your fitness level increases, try to do this exercise without holding on for support. 

Plies

You can do a complete barre workout at home to shape sexier legs, or you can do a few plies throughout the day.

To do a plie start in a standing position. Place your heels together and rotate your toes out to each side. When you look down at your feet they should resemble a V shape. Bend your knees slightly, then return to the starting position. Repeat the exercise 10 times. (Hint: engage your core and do this exercise without holding on to a chair or counter for support. You'll work out the abdominal area, too.)

Staircase Toe Raises

Stand on a stair and let your heels hang off the edge. Hold on to the railing for support. Now lift and lower the heels. Repeat the exercise 7-10 times. 

Got a little more time? If you are healthy enough for vigorous exercise, do more intense cardiovascular workouts to help shape the lower legs. Activities that engage the calf muscles will provide the greatest benefit. Jumping rope, climbing stairs, and jogging work well. Plyometric movements that involve jumping will also help you to reduce swelling. Squat jumps, lunge jumps, and box jumps are good examples. 

A Word from Verywell

Understanding why your ankles are swollen is important to ensure you aren't at risk for serious medical conditions. Once you speak with a healthcare provider to rule out serious problems, you have a variety of ways to deal with swelling.

The good news is that interventions to reduce swelling are all things that contribute to your overall health. You don't have to aim for perfection, but each positive change you make will help diminish swelling and contribute to your well being.

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Goyal A, Cusick AS, Bhutta BS. Peripheral edema. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

  2. Liu F, Allan GM, Korownyk C, et al. Seasonality of ankle swelling: population symptom reporting using google trends. Ann Fam Med. 2016;14(4):356-358. doi:10.1370/afm.1953

  3. Edema - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic.

  4. Gasparis AP, Kim PS, Dean SM, Khilnani NM, Labropoulos N. Diagnostic approach to lower limb edema. Phlebology. 2020;35(9):650-655. doi:10.1177/0268355520938283

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