When to See a Doctor for Swelling in the Arms or Legs

Certain Types of Swelling are Emergencies

By Morgan deBlecourt
May 20, 2021
A doctor examine a patient's leg

While minor swelling is common and not usually a cause for concern, swelling that is excessive, unexplained, or long-lasting may be a sign of a medical problem. Knowing when to seek care is important, since some causes of swelling can be medical emergencies. Here, Duke vascular expert Dan Geersen, PA-C, MPAP, talks about the different types of swelling and explains which symptoms are red flags.

Causes of Swelling in the Arms and Legs

According to Geersen, swelling can be caused by a range of conditions, from bug bites to bruises. After an injury, your body sends fluid to the affected area to help it heal. As the injury heals, excess fluid drains away and the swelling goes down. 

In some cases, however, your body may not be able to adequately circulate fluid, especially in areas that are farthest from your heart, like your arms, hands, legs, and feet. This type of swelling is called peripheral edema, and it can signal more dangerous issues, including:

When to Seek Care for Swelling

You should seek emergency care if you have sudden, unexplained swelling in just one limb or if it occurs along with chest pain, trouble breathing, coughing up blood, fever, or skin that is red and warm to the touch. These can be symptoms of dangerous conditions like deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot in the leg), pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs), or cellulitis (a skin infection).

If you experience swelling that does not go away on its own, make an appointment to see your primary doctor. If the issue doesn’t improve, ask your doctor for a referral to a vascular specialist. Duke offers a special Limb Swelling Clinic for just these kinds of issues. “If you have any kind of unexplained swelling, we want you to come in,” Geersen said. “We’ll do the proper work-up to make sure you get the help you need.”

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