Puffy Legs: When To See A Doctor And What To Expect?
Leg puffiness, or swollen leg, can be caused by inflammation or fluid buildup in the leg. In most cases, it is a temporary condition that typically resolves within a few days.
However, when leg swelling persists, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention. This is because it can indicate an underlying health condition, such as kidney failure, heart disease, blood clots, or liver cirrhosis, which may require urgent treatment.
So, receiving a timely diagnosis and treatment for these underlying conditions is essential because if left untreated, they can lead to severe illness or even death.
Warning Signs That Require Medical Attention
If you notice unexplained puffiness in your legs, you must look for any warning signs that may indicate an underlying health issue. Additionally, when leg puffiness becomes a medical emergency, you typically experience the following symptoms with it:
Pain and Redness
A painful, red, swollen leg could indicate an infection or circulation problems such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or cellulitis.
If you experience leg pain along with a fever, it may indicate an infection. Infections that affect multiple organs can also present with symptoms of leg edema and fever.
For example, studies have shown that chikungunya fever can cause fever accompanied by leg swelling, particularly in younger patients. Moreover, a case study has demonstrated the involvement of multiple organs in a young woman with Malta fever.
If you experience shortness of breath along with swollen legs, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention. Studies have shown that shortness of breath and peripheral (leg) edema are common symptoms of congestive heart failure.
When the heart fails to function properly, it can cause an accumulation of blood in the peripheral areas, such as the hands and lower legs. This can result in the lungs filling with fluid, leading to pulmonary edema, and breathing difficulties.
In addition to congestive heart failure, the combination of leg puffiness and lack of breath is also observed in potential patients of venous thromboembolism (VTE).
Chest Pain or Tightness
If you experience both leg swelling and chest pain, it could indicate low heart muscle performance.
The reduced blood supply to the heart muscle due to the narrowing of heart vessels can increase the risk of a heart attack, as the heart muscle may not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to function properly.
Dizziness and Confusion
Dizziness and fatigue with swelling of ankles and legs point towards underlying heart disease.
Heart failure can cause compromised blood flow to the kidneys, leading to an electrolyte imbalance that may manifest as dizziness.
In addition to dizziness, an electrolyte imbalance can cause mental confusion and weakness, particularly if the imbalance persists over an extended period.
Possible Underlying Health Conditions
Leg puffiness is usually associated with the following health conditions:
Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT)
People who are pregnant, obese, smokers, or have a stagnant lifestyle are at a higher risk of developing DVT. So it’s crucial to seek timely treatment for DVT, as the condition can lead to a life-threatening complication called pulmonary embolism (PE) if left untreated.
Swollen legs can be a clear indication of congestive heart failure. Studies have shown that edema of the lower extremities is a determinant of poorly investigated acute heart failure.
Moreover, in mild-to-moderate heart failure cases, bilateral (of both legs) edema in the lower legs is present in around 30% of patients. Therefore, if your leg swelling is accompanied by chest congestion, shortness of breath, and fatigue, you may suffer from heart failure.
A decline in kidney function, as seen in nephrotic syndrome, can lead to loss of the protein albumin from the blood. The protein loss is directly linked to the development of edema on the feet and ankle region.
Additionally, kidney disease is considered one of the causative factors for bilateral leg edema.
Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when protein-rich fluid accumulates in the tissues of the legs, usually due to damage or blockage of the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes are responsible for filtering fluids, but when damaged, they cannot perform this function properly.
Lymph node blockage can result from various causes, such as parasitic infections, cancer, and cancer treatments. As a result, individuals with lymphedema in the legs often experience tissue strain.
Liver cirrhosis is a chronic condition characterized by damage and scarring of the liver. This end-stage liver disease affects other organs as well. In most cases, edema of the legs is present, which can seriously reduce the quality of life in cirrhosis patients.
Another condition that can make your legs swollen is a skin infection due to bacteria, i.e., cellulitis. It appears as pain, redness, swelling, and tenderness.
What to Expect During a Doctor’s Visit?
To determine the underlying health condition, your doctor will gather your complete medical and drug history and conduct a physical examination. It's essential for the doctor to know the duration, distribution, and any accompanying symptoms you may be experiencing.
To assist in making a diagnosis, the doctor may request blood tests such as a complete blood count, urine tests, or imaging of the legs through procedures like leg ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI.
The treatment options for puffiness depend on the underlying cause, such as heart failure or DVT. DVT can be treated with blood-thinning medications, while diuretics can help remove excess fluid and manage heart failure.
Your doctor may also suggest managing fluid retention symptoms by reducing sodium in your diet and applying light compression while elevating your legs.
Kahn et al. conducted a randomized controlled trial which revealed that using compression stockings for a period of two years following a DVT diagnosis reduced the likelihood of developing post-thrombotic syndrome, a chronic condition that can cause pain and persistent leg swelling.
Minimally-invasive vascular procedure - In some cases, procedure may be necessary to remove blockages or repair damaged veins.
Temporary leg puffiness that lasts for a few days is generally harmless and can be due to physical inactivity.
However, if there is fluid retention and inflammation in the lower leg area and it's accompanied by warning signs like chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, or dizziness, it could indicate underlying severe conditions.
Therefore, you must not risk your health and make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible to rule out potentially deadly complications.