The primary culprit of swelling during travel is inactivity. Sitting with knees bent, feet on the floor (as you do in a plane seat) causes blood & fluid to pool downward toward the feet. Depending on your leg length this can be exacerbated by the pressure the plane seat puts on the back of the legs. Combine this lack of circulation with poor hydration and changes in elevation and your bod’s up for a challenge!
Luckily, there are a few easy things you can to do help. To prevent foot and leg swelling in flight:
Select an aisle seat so you can get up frequently with minimal hassle. Walks to the lav are a great way to get the blood flowing. If you can’t (or don’t want to) get up, alternate pointing and flexing your toes to circulate blood in the calves. This is an instance where fidgeting is great! Shift around in your seat while sitting and avoid crossing your legs.
Avoid alcohol and too much caffeine, which can dehydrate you during travel. Guzzle H2O – in addition to promoting circulation, this can also help combat the dry air & skin which often plagues airport cabins.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Skip the skinny jeans. Instead opt for loose, non-binding clothing that doesn’t pinch behind the knees. Supplement this with compression socks or stockings. Though the tightness within them may seem counter-intuitive, true graduated compression stockings or socks will help improve your circulation by squeezing most tightly in the ankle and gradually looser above. This pushes the blood and fluid back upwards towards the heart.
Resist the temptation to knock yourself out for a full flight with Ambien or sleeping aids. Extreme drowsiness (and sleeping) keeps you immobile for long periods.
PROP YOUR FEET
If you put a small bag underneath the seat in front of you, use it as a footrest. In addition to elevating your feet, this trick also helps relieve some of the pressure forced on the back of the legs by the airplane seat.
Following these tricks should help minimize swelling, but keep an eye out if it persists for several hours once you’re on the ground and back on your feet. It could be a sign of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) – a blood clot in the leg.
The most common symptoms of DVT are:
- swelling (usually in one leg as opposed to both)
- pain (described to feel like a cramp)
- skin discoloration (reddish or blue)
- warm to the touch
Factors that can increase risk for travel-induced DVT include recent surgery, injury, use of birth hormonal birth control, pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, family history, obesity, and prolonged inactivity. If you experience any combination of the above, reach out to a Doc ASAP – immediate treatment can make the difference between catching a DVT and having it advance to a more serious condition.