Many older adults are affected by swollen ankles and legs which can affect safety and quality of life. Swollen ankles can make moving around more difficult, increase fall risk, and make the lower body feel uncomfortable and heavy.
This post explains the causes of swollen ankles and legs in seniors, what to do before starting any exercises, lifestyle changes that can help, and how certain exercises can help.
Causes of swollen ankles in seniors
Ankles, lower legs, and feet swell when the body retains fluid in the lower legs, ankles, and feet. It’s called edema, usually happens on both sides of the body, and is common in older adults. This type of swelling in extremities can also be signs of a serious underlying health condition.
Edema can be caused by a variety of different causes including:
- Congestive heart failure and other heart conditions
- Chronic kidney disease
- Vascular conditions
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- After surgery, when the body is healing
- Inactive or sedentary lifestyle
NOTE: if swelling only occurs only on one side of the body, contact a doctor immediately. It could be deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot), which would need immediate medical treatment.
What to do before starting exercises to get rid of swollen ankles
Before starting any exercises to get rid of swollen ankles or legs, it’s essential to check with your older adult’s doctor, find the underlying cause, and get their approval to exercise the area. Moving fluid out of the legs and into the center of the body to be eliminated could put extra stress on their body, especially for people with heart or kidney conditions. For example, it might be dangerous to reduce swelling in the legs with exercise if that makes a heart condition worse. The goal is to safely improve overall health and comfort.
Lifestyle changes that can reduce swelling in ankles, legs, and feet
Potential solutions that can help reduce swelling include:
- Wearing compression socks or compression stockings.
- Making sure shoes aren’t too tight.
- Elevating the legs to allow gravity to help with circulation.
- Staying hydrated – it may sound counterintuitive, but dehydration can actually cause the body to retain more fluids.
- Eating more magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and leafy greens.
- Increasing overall movement and exercise – sitting or standing in one place for too long can increase swelling. Even moving knees and flexing ankles can help.
- Limit intake of salt and carbohydrates.
- Epsom salt baths (or soaking legs in an epsom-salted tub of water) for 15-20 minutes – not scientifically proven, but many people say it’s effective.
- Losing excess weight.
How simple home exercises help reduce swelling in legs and ankles
Here are some simple home exercises that basically work against gravity and help the body pump fluids up from the feet and back into the trunk (center area) of the body. Once the fluid is in the upper body, it can be processed by the kidneys and eliminated in urine. Because these exercises help the body get rid of excess fluid, your older adult might need to use the bathroom more frequently.
Watch this seven minute video from “Bob and Brad, the Famous Physical Therapists” for three exercises to reduce swollen ankles, legs, and feet.
As with any exercise, it’s always best to start slowly and increase over time to prevent injuries or discomfort.
Exercise 1: Ankle pumps (1:28 in video)
Lie down and elevate feet. Moving only the feet, point toes up toward the head and then point toes down away from head.
Go back and forth and aim for 30 repetitions, 3 times a day.
It’s best to do this exercise while lying down, but it can also be done while seated. To make them a little more effective while seated, use a stool to elevate the feet.
Another senior-friendly alternative (2:48 in video) is to tap the toes like tapping along to a song. It might even be fun to play some toe-tapping music to make it more fun.
Exercise 2: Butt squeezes (3:17 min in video)
While sitting or lying down, tighten the glutes (butt muscles) – as if trying to pick up a quarter that’s between the butt cheeks.
Go slowly and try to hold the squeeze for a few seconds, then release and relax for a few seconds before the next squeeze.
While doing this exercise, make sure your older adult doesn’t hold their breath. They should breathe slowly and deeply.
Aim for 10 of these squeezes, 3 times a day.
Exercise 3: Single knee to chest (5:09 min in video)
While lying down, bring one knee up to the chest and then return the leg to the flat position. Keep the other leg either flat or bent with the foot on the bed to take pressure off the back.
After finishing the exercises with one leg, switch to the alternate leg.
They don’t specifically mention how many repetitions to do. 10 repetitions per side, 3 times a day seems reasonable, but use your judgement to see what works best for your older adult.
Source: Dailycaring.com blog.
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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