Why Do My Feet Swell When I Travel

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Have you ever felt like your shoes had suddenly become too small when you’ve been sitting for hours on a plane, train, or even a car? While this condition can be inconvenient, it is more common than you’d think. 

Swelling of the feet during hours of road or air travel is mainly due to gravity, and cramped seats and small legroom can make matters worse. While mostly harmless, ankle and foot swelling can certainly cramp your vacation.

Why Do My Feet Swell When I Travel
Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

What Causes Foot and Ankle Swelling During Travel?

Swelling of the feet and ankles, medically known as edema, is a condition where bodily fluid pools around the lower extremities. It occurs when increased pressure causes the fluid to leave the blood and seep into the nearby tissues, pooling around the feet and ankles.

Usually, there isn’t much to do during long flights or drives except sit in one place without enough space to move around. Such prolonged inactivity, while the legs are bent at the knee, causes gravity to pull fluid down to the lowest part of the body, the feet, and ankles. Inactivity and cramped space also cause the calf muscles to stop pumping blood, leading to poor circulation, which adds to the swelling.

Another probable cause of ankle and foot swelling during travel is diet. Most individuals have a habit of consuming fast food like burgers, chips, fries, etc. while traveling, and these items have a high salt content. Increased consumption of salt, commonly known as sodium chloride, can cause the body to retain water, thus increasing swelling.

Other causes of the swelling, which may not necessarily be linked to traveling, may include tight shoes, being overweight, certain medications, insect bites, pregnancy, infections, and kidney, liver, or heart diseases.

How to Prevent Swollen Feet While Traveling

There are some ways how you can prepare and try to prevent your feet from swelling during travel.

Wear Compression Stockings

Compression stockings are special types that usually go up to a person’s thighs or knees and are very effective in preventing ankle and foot swelling. They comprise stretchable elastics that compress the leg veins and muscles and help with blood circulation. Moreover, normal socks with elastic bands go only up to one’s calf or ankle and can constrict blood flow, which adds to the swelling. Therefore, if you are prone to ankle and foot swelling or travel long distances, it is a good idea to wear compression stockings to reduce the discomfort and pain associated with it.

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Additionally, since compression stockings help to improve blood flow, they also help to prevent major issues like deep vein thrombosis caused by blood clot formation due to poor blood circulation.

Move Your Legs Periodically

When traveling for more than two hours, you should try to walk and stretch your legs every hour. However, that might not always be possible, so as an alternative, you can do some ankle-pumping exercises every hour to move the calf muscles and help with circulation. To do this exercise, you can simply move your foot up, down, and left-right at the ankle joint. 

If you are wearing sandals, you can also gently massage your feet to get the blood flowing. Moreover, you can also shift your position in the seat every once in a while for some kind of movement. However, be careful not to cross your legs, as it will only constrict the blood vessels.

These simple movements will allow your calf muscles and leg veins to stay active and continue blood circulation, plus you don’t even have to get out of your seat to do them.

Eat Healthy

While sodas, chips, and burgers might be your go-to meal plan while traveling, they are far from ideal for your swelling-prone legs. Salt causes your body to hold on to water instead of excreting it. Therefore, it is important to start eating healthy in the days leading up to the trip and during the trip itself. While we don’t mean you have to start dieting for days before hopping on the plane, you can swap your processed food and salty snacks for healthy alternatives like fruits, salads, and dry fruits instead of processed food items and salty snacks.

You should also drink plenty of fluids, preferably water. Drinking water will allow your body to flush out the excess sodium, which reduces the chances of swelling. Adequate hydration will also keep your body alert, your organs fit, and your muscles healthy, aiding in blood circulation. As a bonus, drinking enough water will cause you to take more bathroom breaks, giving you a chance to stretch your legs more often.

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Wear Comfortable Clothes

While a chic airport look looks good on the gram, tight clothes make it difficult for blood to circulate adequately. Loose-fitting pants and comfortable, well-fitting shoes help prevent feet from swelling during air travel. Restrictive clothes and tight shoes stop the blood flow at the ankles, which prevents blood from returning to the upper parts of the body. This causes the blood to remain stagnant at the feet and causes leg swelling.

Moreover, increased swelling will increase the tightness of the clothes, which will only aggravate the issue. To prevent that, people often opt to change into pajamas and sandals on overnight flights or trains. However, for the sake of your fellow passengers, you might want to change before boarding or in the bathroom.

How Can I Reduce Foot and Ankle Swelling After Traveling?

Usually, the mild discomfort and pain due to the swelling go away on their own after some time. However, to speed up the process, you can try elevating your legs using a pillow or a blanket. You may even try massaging your legs, doing mild exercise, or going on a short walk. Additionally, keep wearing compression stockings for an additional time and drink more water. Keep away from salty food, and do not hang your legs down if you do not want the swelling to get worse.

What Happens If the Swelling Does Not Go Down?

If the swelling persists for several hours or if only one leg is more swollen than the other, there might be some other underlying problem. Go to your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Continued swelling of the foot and ankle can indicate a blood clot in the leg, which may progress to deep vein thrombosis if not treated properly. You should go to the doctor or an emergency room if you notice these symptoms. 
  • If you are having trouble breathing and are experiencing chest pain, you should immediately visit the emergency room since those symptoms can mean that you have a blood clot blocking the blood supply to the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary embolism.
  • Consult your doctor and get the green signal for long-distance travel if you are pregnant or have any disease that can make you prone to blood clots, such as kidney, liver, or heart diseases. 
  • You may also want to consult your primary care provider before traveling if you are taking birth control pills or have recently undergone surgery.
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Conclusion

Traveling for a long time can cause foot and ankle swelling in most people. While it can be harmless and temporary, always watch for signs of potential trouble like prolonged swelling, one leg more swollen than the other, and breathing difficulties.

Prolonged sitting and the non-existent leg space can cause increased swelling, but you can find some comfort from moving every once in a while, drinking more water, wearing compression stockings, and avoiding salty food.


Travel tips and tricks:

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I highly recommend trying these tools for yourself – not only will you save money, but you’ll also create memories that last a lifetime. Happy travels!


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