There was once a time when someone would ask how you were, and the answer might be, “Just swell.”
As we age, though, it’s not just the language that changes; our bodies change, too. And when seniors think of the word “swell,” they might be thinking about their ankles.
Swollen ankles are a common problem for many seniors, and swelling in the lower extremities in general can be difficult to eliminate.
Causes of swelling in older adults
A number of causes can be responsible for swollen ankles and feet, including medical conditions and some medications. But just the passage of time can also increase the likelihood of swelling.
“As you age, your cardiovascular system doesn’t work as well, so venous return – where your blood pumps back up to your heart – isn’t as efficient as it used to be, so it’s harder for your vessels to pump blood back up,” said Cindy Bischoff, a licensed physical therapist. “It’s just part of the aging process.”
Bischoff also notes that some seniors might experience more swelling during the summer when it’s hotter.
Some seniors might experience more swelling during the summer when it’s hotter.
If you notice swelling in your senior’s feet or ankles, it’s important to check with their doctor to make sure the swelling isn’t being caused by an untreated medical condition or injury. Ankle swelling is a symptom of serious conditions like congestive heart failure, so don’t just assume signs of swelling are just a symptom of aging.
Ankle swelling is a symptom of serious conditions like congestive heart failure, so don’t just assume signs of swelling are just a symptom of aging.
Symptoms of swelling in ankles
Ankle swelling often presents itself as a painless bulging of the ankles. This can happen as soon as you get out of bed or at the end of the day. Many seniors note that swelling will increase throughout the day.
When your ankles are swollen, the skin covering your ankle can look stretched or shiny because of the ankle’s increased size. Swollen ankles can also feel stiff or uncomfortable and may leave an indentation when you press on it.
If you notice swelling in your senior’s feet or ankles that persists over several days, it’s time to check in with your loved one’s doctor.
What you can do about swelling
If the swelling is being caused by a medical condition or medication, a doctor may prescribe new medication or adjust the medication they’re currently taking. A doctor may also prescribe a diuretic to reduce the amount of water your loved one is retaining.
The best way to reduce ankle swelling in most people, though, is to be more active, Bischoff said.
“Don’t be sedentary,” she said. “Get up and walk, even if it’s just 10 minutes multiple times a day.”
She also recommends elevating the feet when seated to avoid having your feet positioned underneath you for long periods of time.
Bischoff doesn’t recommend any particular exercises for swollen ankles, but she said any knee, hip, ankle or whole-leg exercises will help improve the blood flow back to the heart.
If you’re not sure where to start with exercising, this video offers three simple exercises that can help reduce ankle swelling.
While exercise is an important part of any plan to reduce swelling, it might be a good idea to check your diet, as well. A high-sodium intake can increase swelling, so check the labels on your food and monitor how much sodium you eat.
A high-sodium intake can increase swelling, so check the labels on your food and monitor how much sodium you eat.
Compression socks can also help alleviate ankle swelling in seniors, but they need to be used correctly to get the most benefit.
“Put compression socks on before you get out of bed in the morning and wear them all day, taking them off before you go to bed,” Bischoff said. “You want to put them on before the swelling starts.”
Compression socks or hose increase blood flow by putting pressure on your blood vessels, making it easier for them to carry blood both to your extremities and back to your heart.
Many seniors will benefit from lower-grade compression socks you can purchase at your local store or online. However, in some cases, your doctor might want your loved one to use a higher grade of compression sock, which will require a prescription.
Preventing ankle swelling
If ankle swelling presents itself in an otherwise healthy, active senior, a call to the doctor is definitely in order.
“If you don’t have any other underlying health conditions, you should not get ankle swelling if you’re not sedentary,” Bischoff said.
However, if your senior leads a more sedentary lifestyle, the best way to prevent ankle swelling is to get them moving. Short walks or periods of exercise throughout the day will keep the blood flowing from the lower extremities back to the heart.
Short walks or periods of exercise throughout the day will keep the blood flowing from the lower extremities back to the heart.
Applying the age-old advice to eat healthy and stay active will allow your senior to answer that question about how they are doing with the words, “I’m swell,” and not, “I’m swelling.”