Through both of her pregnancies, Julia Ball experienced swollen feet. So swollen, in fact, that even the straps of her flip-flops left indents in her flesh, and there was very little that she could do about it. “It would be fairly mild in the morning, but by the time I got out of the shower, I could feel it start to get worse. By the evening, the swelling was so uncomfortable that my feet felt like they weren’t even attached to my body,” says the Mount Albert, Ont., mom. “Plus, it was really unattractive.”
Angela Campagnoni of Halifax suffered such intense swelling in her legs and feet during her first pregnancy that she had to buy shoes in a bigger size. “I only gained 47 pounds, but it looked like so much more because of the puffiness. Friends look at pictures of me then and are horrified,” she says. Now 35 weeks pregnant with her second, Campagnoni says swelling isn’t an issue, but she has been “blessed with heartburn instead.”
Why Swelling Happens
Slight swelling (also known as edema) in the feet and ankles, and occasionally hands, is not uncommon, especially in the third trimester, says Joanna Zed, MD, a family doctor in Halifax. During pregnancy, fluid volume increases and your growing uterus puts pressure on the blood vessels in the pelvis and on the vena cava (the large vein that returns blood from your lower limbs to the heart), slowing circulation. “This means that there is more blood in the veins in your legs that isn’t flowing back up into the body as well as it usually does; so it pools,” explains Dr. Zed. Add in the effects of gravity pulling everything down, and feet and ankles may start to resemble overstuffed sausages.
Managing Fluid Retention
While inconvenient and uncomfortable, there is no medical treatment for mild swelling. Diuretics, which are commonly used to treat edema, are not suitable during pregnancy.
What you can do to relieve the discomfort of swelling is elevate your feet whenever possible and continue to drink adequate amounts of water (six to eight glasses a day), suggests Dr. Zed. Drinking water can help reduce swelling by keeping you hydrated and flushing sodium (which causes you to retain water) from your body. Also avoid prolonged periods of standing or sitting, try not to cross your legs while sitting, save any clothes with elasticized or tight cuffs around the wrists and ankles for post-pregnancy and wear the most comfortable shoes you can find. At night, you may want to try sleeping on your left side, which will take pressure off the vena cava, and elevate your feet slightly using pillows.
Campagnoni says she thinks she may be faring better swelling-wise with this pregnancy because of the weather. “The summer I was pregnant there were record highs for heat; it was incredibly uncomfortable and made the swelling worse,” she says. Ball was hoping that she’d escape the swelling with her second child, Hayley, now 10 months old, for the same reason. “No such luck,” she says. “It was slightly better, but still bad, and the only way to relieve it was to lie on my back with my feet in the air or over the back of the couch.”
Fortunately, this condition is a temporary one. Once you give birth, the swelling will subside, usually within a couple days, says Dr. Zed.
More Than Swelling
A certain amount of swelling may be normal, but sudden or severe swelling is not, and may be an indication of a more worrisome condition, such as preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension), which affects blood flow to the uterus and may result in smaller or premature babies, says Dr. Zed.
“If the swelling comes on quickly, or lasts all day instead of coming on in the morning and getting worse throughout the day, and comes with other symptoms such as severe headache, blurred vision and belly pain, then those are all things we would worry about,” she says. Swelling in only one leg, with tenderness or pain, may indicate the presence of a blood clot or other condition. Any of those symptoms warrant a visit to your family physician, says Dr. Zed, who notes that your physician should check your weight and blood pressure, and test your urine for protein to detect any concerns during your regular prenatal appointments.