As if jet lag, security checkpoints and motion sickness weren't bad enough, long trips can affect your legs and feet too. Technology has advanced to the point that it's possible to travel thousands of miles in a day, but our bodies haven't quite kept up. When you're traveling, narrow seats, limited leg room and a lack of mobility for long periods of time can combine to create poor blood circulation in your lower extremities. When circulation to the feet is limited, they will feel swollen, cold and cramped, an extremely painful affliction called edema that only adds to the stresses of air travel. Follow these tips for prevention and treatment of leg and foot pain while traveling long distance.
Blood circulation is essential for your overall health, spreading oxygen and nutrients throughout your entire body. Conditions like hypertension -- the hardening of varicose veins and arteries -- can diminish your blood circulation, leading to cramping and discomfort in the part of the body not receiving enough blood flow. But external factors can impact blood circulation, too. The long periods of time and inactivity while sitting on a plane during air travel can cause your feet, ankles and legs to swell as a result of blood pooling in your lower extremities. This puts more pressure on the leg veins. Aching, muscle tightness and tenderness in the lower legs and thighs are typically the first symptoms of pain someone may experience. The skin surface may also feel warm or swollen when touched, coupled with areas of redness. In addition, you may experience a slight fever.
If you spend a lot of time on airplanes – especially long-distance flights – that recurring pain in your legs may be a warning that you're at risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
This potentially life-threatening condition is triggered by the formation of blood clots, typically within the thighs and calves, often causing pain in leg muscles. Leg pain that is concentrated in one leg or that lingers long after the flight is over, chest pain, or shortness of breath are indicators to see a health care provider.
Although long periods of immobility are frequently associated with the development of edema and DVT, other factors significantly escalate the risk. These include a family history of blood clots, blood circulation issues, or clotting disorders, taking estrogen birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, obesity, varicose veins, smoking, recent surgeries and pregnancy. As you get older you also have an increased risk of DVT or thromboembolism.
Luckily, there are a number of prevention methods you can follow to help reduce your chances of experiencing leg pain on long travel days.
A critical component of healthy flying, especially on long flights, is to move about the cabin when it is safe to do so. Simple exercises include walking back and forth, doing foot and knee lifts, and performing ankle flexes and rotations. On a long travel day, be sure to get up a walk around during a layover. Be sure to wear loose-fitting clothing that will comfortably allow movement and blood flow. If possible at the time of check-in, upgrade to a seat with extra leg room, an aisle seat, or to request an exit row, this seat will offer more space to stretch your limbs. Put your carry-on luggage overhead to maximize your space. Try not to fall asleep for more than a half-hour to avoid those cramping calf muscles.
Food and Hydration
Limit the consumption of caffeine and alcohol, but stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Avoid salty snack that will limit hydration retention. Take supplements or eat food containing Vitamin C and E, which promote circulation.
Compression socks or stockings aren't stylish, but they are useful. They put pressure on the leg veins and increase circulation to prevent blood from pooling there. Even if your legs are already swollen, donning compression socks should help push that fluid away from the lower extremities. Your doctor may even prescribe custom-fit compression stockings if you're prone to developing clots.
Putting your feet up during or after a long trip might feel counterintuitive; after all, you've been sitting all day. It might help reduce swelling, though. Lie down for a few minutes with legs propped up on a pillow or rest them on a chair while sitting down. Even raising your feet a few inches off the ground should help get blood moving. Try not to cross your legs throughout the flight, as this restricts blood flow.
If you find the symptoms of edema lingering after a long flight, or if just one leg remains swollen, that could mean it’s time to seek medical treatment for DVT. The objective of medical treatment is to reduce the size of a clot before it can travel to or obstruct the blood vessels or lungs and become fatal. Call your doctor as soon as possible, or visit an urgent-care or ER, where they will run tests to diagnose DVT and prescribe blood thinners to break up the clot. There is a surgical procedure involving the insertion of a filter to trap blood clots and prevent them from entering the lungs.