08.24.20 Swelling

Prevent Swelling During Air Travel

You’ve heard of jet lag, but how about jet leg? One of the most common concerns our patients mention in the summer travel months is swollen legs and feet. When you're sitting, the normal systems that help pump fluid out of your legs struggle to work at an optimal level. As a result, blood can pool in your lower extremities, leading to uncomfortable swelling.

Air travel with increased cabin pressure can particularly contribute to swollen feet while flying. However, all travel by car, plane, train and bus shares the same problem: sitting with your legs in a dependent position for many hours. Inactivity is the common culprit.

Fortunately, this swelling is usually harmless, but no one wants to start their fun trip with puffy ankles and fat feet. Here are some tips to consider to keep your legs and feet healthy and feeling their best for vacation.

Watch Your Diet

In the days before your trip, limit your salt intake as much as possible. Salt, or sodium, plays an important role in fluid balance within the body, but you only need a small amount. High sodium levels can increase water retention, which can lead to increased swelling. Avoid adding excess salt to your meals before traveling and steer clear of processed foods and snacks that are typically loaded with sodium and preservatives. Many whole foods, such as vegetables, nuts, and seeds, are naturally low in sodium. Some foods with potassium can even reduce sodium levels, including spinach, bananas and sweet potatoes.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

Drink plenty of water for the three days leading up to your trip and on the day of travel. Although it may seem counterintuitive, dehydration actually promotes swelling. Increasing your water intake helps mobilize fluids around your body, thereby reducing retention and preventing swelling. Being well hydrated also optimizes your circulation and keeps you feeling your best. Bring a large bottle with you and refill it as needed. And don’t worry about needing to take frequent bathroom breaks — skipping trips to the restroom is an unhealthy choice that can lead to other health concerns.

Get Up and Move as Often as You Can

Swollen ankles after flying or a long drive occur, in part, due to a lack of movement. Walking to the bathroom or stopping to walk for 10 minutes every two hours will keep you alert and increase the circulation in your legs to reduce swelling. In fact, it’s wise to prioritize moving throughout your day, every day — over time, prolonged sitting can lead to spider veins or varicose veins, pain and stiffness in your joints, and increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Store Your Belongings Overhead

Airline seats are notoriously cramped and uncomfortable. When flying, place your carry-on luggage in the overhead bin so there’s nothing obstructing the space in front of you. This creates as much room as possible for you to stretch out your legs and change positions throughout the flight. Not only is this more comfortable, but it also gives you bonus space to move your feet, ankles and legs to promote blood circulation.

Ask for an Aisle Seat

The window vs. aisle seat debate is fierce, but if you suffer from chronic leg swelling or lymphedema, there’s only one right answer. Sitting near the aisle makes it easier for you to get up and walk around and provides a few extra inches of stretch room to keep your feet and legs comfortable. Seats located in an emergency row or behind a bulkhead (an interior dividing wall) frequently offer the most legroom.

Exercise Your Feet While Sitting

Even when you’re unable to get up and walk, you can awaken your muscles and increase circulation by doing exercises from a seated position. Please note that these should not be done while you are driving. If you’re a passenger, however, or traveling by train or plane, try these in-your-seat moves:

  • While keeping your heel fixed to the floor, flex your foot and point your toes upward. Then lower your foot flat onto the floor. Repeat this 20 times on each foot.
  • While keeping your toes pressed on the floor, raise your heel high while pointing your toes down. Lower your heel onto the floor. Repeat this 20 times on each foot.

Don’t Cross Your Legs

Sitting with your legs crossed can place pressure on the peroneal nerve, which is located behind the knee. Staying in this position for too long can lead to the familiar “pins and needles” feeling or numbness in your feet. Crossed leg positions can also temporarily impact blood pressure and inhibit circulation. Keeping your legs uncrossed and your feet flat on the floor helps to optimize your circulation and posture for both short-term and long-term health.

Do Not Wear Tight, Restrictive Pants

Constrictive clothing, like body-hugging skinny jeans, can impede blood flow if worn for extended periods of time. Wear pants with a looser fit or made from a fabric that stretches to reduce your risk of developing swollen ankles and rash after flying or driving for hours. Do not wear socks with restrictive elastic bands or shapewear. Save the fashion-forward, fitted items in your wardrobe for other occasions.

Wear Prescription Strength Compression Stockings

Compression socks, stockings or hose assist with circulation and prevent fluid collection in your feet, ankles and legs. Knee-high stockings are most commonly used during travel. Prescription stockings are manufactured with specially-designed, graduated compression and come in a variety of colors and breathable fabrics. Compression stockings are most effective if put on first thing in the morning before swelling occurs. Your primary care doctor or a vascular physician can prescribe or provide compression hose before your travel.

Choose Your Shoes Wisely

Footwear that is small, too big, too tight or too flat can cause pain, trauma and swelling. If you know you have a long travel day ahead, avoid pointy or snug-fitting shoes and high heels. Instead, choose shoes that are comfortable and well-fitting with adequate arch support. Be kind to your feet and legs — they are the foundation of your ability to be mobile, active and healthy.

The Dangers of Flying with Swollen Legs: When to Seek Medical Attention

Sudden onset of leg swelling with or without travel can signify a serious medical issue. You should call your doctor or a vascular physician immediately if you experience sudden swelling, as it could signify a blood clot. Blood clots can be life-threatening and you should seek care right away.

Leading Care for Vein Disorders and Total Vascular Health

The health of your legs is the cornerstone of living a healthy, active life. At Capitol Vein and Laser Centers, we specialize in the management and treatment of leg edema, lymphedema, chronic venous insufficiency, varicose veins and venous stasis leg ulcerations and wounds. For more information about how to reduce swelling in feet after travel, please call our office at 301-581-0170 today. We are happy to answer your questions or schedule you in for an evaluation!

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