Be "walk ready" with these travel-savvy tips

Air travel can be both exciting and stressful, but if you have significant ankle swelling or foot swelling after your plane lands, you may be at risk for potentially dangerous health problems.

While most cases of joint and limb swelling after a flight aren’t severe, in the worst case scenario some can ultimately lead to death. Being aware of the risks of ankles and feet swelling on a plane, looking out for symptoms, and knowing how to prevent it from happening are the best ways to alleviate this often-stressful aspect of airplane travel. A little self-care before and during your flight can go a long way toward ensuring that ankle and foot swelling doesn’t spoil your vacation. With these simple tricks, you'll be ready to hit your stride whether you're ending your air travel in New York, New Mexico or any other place where new adventures await.

How swollen ankles happen

Edema, a medical term for ankle swelling or foot swelling and legs, occurs when you sit still in one position for a prolonged period. In an airplane, you're more likely to sit quietly with your feet on the floor than at home or in the office where it's easier to stroll, fidget and shift positions frequently. Even if you are in tip-top health, excess fluid buildup can seep into your lower extremities, causing them to swell a little, or a lot.

It's not a permanent condition, and it's rarely harmful, but edema can make walking uncomfortable until the swelling goes down. It can also make your shoes fit extra tight. You may even feel a little self-conscious because you don't have perfectly tapered legs to show off as you leave the arrivals gate at the airport. Don't worry unless there is excess swelling or pain beyond general discomfort, which can indicate a possible blood clot, embolism, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). In that case, seek a healthcare professional promptly for medical attention.

Help for swollen ankles

If you discover your ankles are swollen at the end of the flight, take a few moments to apply some tender, loving self-care:

  • Rest and elevate.

Find a place to sit with your feet up as soon as possible. Seating areas in the airline terminal will be the closest, and you can stretch out your legs on adjoining seats in an uncrowded area.

* ‌Exercise.

After a brief rest with your shoelaces loosened or your shoes completely off, begin gentle exercises. Rotate your ankles. Lift legs up, lower legs and move your legs around from side to side to prevent pain. Finally, press the soles of your feet onto the ground and rock them while still seated. Put your shoes on and proceed to baggage claim and to your ground transportation, resting when necessary.

* ‌Soak.

At your destination, soak your feet for 15 to 20 minutes in a basin of tepid water and Epsom salts. Continue to alternate gentle exercise and rest with your feet elevated while making sure to avoid salty foods until the swelling subsides.

Prevent Swollen Feet After a Flight

Put on clothing that fits loosely, and wear comfortable shoes for your flight. Do not wear knee socks or other socks with elastic bands that can restrict blood flow in your legs. This can lead to leg swelling and pain over long periods of time.Drink plenty of water during the day before your flight. Avoid alcohol and sleep aids that might reduce your ability to safely move around the plane's cabin for bathroom and stretching breaks. Hydration is key prior to long flights. Also avoid foods that may alter the body’s fluid retention.Take a baby aspirin just before boarding to support good circulation. Check with your doctor before you fly to make sure you're not at risk for bleeding and that the small, 81-milligram dose won't interfere with your wellness, blood pressure, or other medications.

When you're on board

Place your carry-on luggage in an overhead bin so there's nothing blocking the area under the seat in front of you. Use that bonus space to rotate your ankles and wiggle your feet during the flight. Flex and release your calf muscles and thigh muscles occasionally to promote blood circulation in your legs.Sip water frequently. Give alcoholic beverages, caffeinated drinks and salty snacks like pretzels a pass as they can exacerbate swelling in your ankles – and the rest of your body, for that matter – during the flight.Get up, walk up and down the aisle and gently stretch your body about every hour during longer flights. Always make sure the “fasten seat belt” sign is off, and check that in-flight service carts aren't blocking the aisle before you take your stroll.

How to use compression socks for prevention

If you are pregnant, recently had surgery or have other conditions that make you susceptible to swelling and poor circulation, your doctor may recommend wearing compression stockings when you fly. These garments fit snugly the entire length of your legs and help keep blood from pooling in your lower extremities. They can be difficult to put on, practice before you fly. It's easiest to put compression socks on at home or in your hotel room before you head to the airport. Alternatively, you can pack the socks in your carry-on bag to put on after you pass through security but before you board your flight.

Problems and Potential Risks

Swollen ankles and feet – which are medically called gravitational edema – can make movement and fitting into shoes painful after flying. This might be annoying, but is not necessarily dangerous. If you often get swollen feet after a flight (and have ruled out potential health hazards with your doctor), remember to bring shoes or sandals with a little extra room.In some cases, swollen joints and limbs indicate blood clots and the potentially fatal condition known as deep vein thrombosis. If a blood clot becomes lodged deep into a vein after a long flight and breaks off, it can cause an embolism; even if death doesn’t occur, serious and debilitating damage to vital organs can result. Signs of deep vein thrombosis, in addition to swelling of the feet and ankles, include redness, warmth to the touch and/or pain in the affected limbs.

Risk Factors for Swollen Legs After Flying

People who are significantly overweight may be at heightened risk for ankle and foot swelling after a flight, as are men and women over the age of 60. Menstruating women also are more prone to develop swelling and blood clots after long flights. Men and women who regularly exercise even when not flying are less likely to suffer from severe limb and joint edema after flying; they're more likely to avoid potentially fatal problems such as blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you are at a greater risk.

Getting Medical Help

If you become short of breath or have chest pain along with your post-flight ankle and foot swelling, seek immediate medical attention. If you're on the plane, press your call button and describe your symptoms to a flight attendant. If you've already deplaned, call for emergency medical assistance. If you have signs of deep vein thrombosis without any chest pain or shortness of breath, you still need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Prompt detection of any blood clots enhances the chances of successful treatment; a doctor likely needs to run post-flight blood tests and perhaps an EKG, to determine if your joint and limb swelling indicates a blood clot.