Swollen feet and ankles can cause discomfort during long travel or long-haul flights. A static sitting position decreases your muscle activity and restricts blood flow. However, exercises and stretching can help to reduce swelling in feet and ankles. Swollen feet and ankles can appear for many reasons, especially when you suffer from medical conditions such as deep vein thrombosis, lymphedema, or even more serious diseases.
Sitting during traveling requires a static body position where body fluids flow is slowed, and muscle activity reduced.
To avoid swelling in your feet and ankles, exercise every hour while traveling by car or plane.
If you can have a short walk, don’t miss it!
Drinking enough water helps you stay hydrated during travel.
More than two billion passengers travel by plane every year. Long-distance car trips are also common. Both of these modes of transportation increase the risk of blood clots and vein thrombosis, especially for those who are already at an increased risk for these conditions.
During long-haul flights or traveling by car, many healthy adults suffer from swollen legs due to prolonged sitting. Prolonged sitting while traveling by car or plane requires an almost static body regime, where blood and other body fluids flow is reduced and swelling starts.
Why do feet and ankles swell during travel?
There are many reasons why your lower legs swell during travel. Some adults have medical issues which cause edema of the legs. But there are other reasons as well.
One of these is the static sitting position. While sitting, blood flow in our main veins and arteries is restricted. Moreover, during a static sitting position, your muscles are less active. They do not contract as they normally do and do not promote blood flow in veins.
Also, the swelling appears because while you are sitting, hydrostatic pressure increases in the veins and increases flow via capillary membrane into the interstitial space.
Tips to avoid swollen ankles and feet
Although, it might seem impossible to avoid swollen feet during travel, there are options to reduce the risk.
You can activate calf muscles by doing circles in the ankle joints, heel-rise and toe-rise exercises, and foot pumps during long travel. Keep your lower legs active as much as you can.
One study showed a positive effect from exercises that are performed against resistance during a long-haul flight. These exercises increased blood volume flow.
Moreover, it is important to move knee joints by flexing and extending them to increase muscle activity, blood circulation, and relieve the popliteal area (the hollow in back of your knee).
Exercises help to drain fluids through muscle contraction, and can help improve calf muscle mobility. Using compression garments can help reduce the swelling of feet and ankles even more.
During long travel by car and plane, your calf muscles are inactive, so it is important to stretch these. Stretch calf muscles by pointing your toes upward. If you have additional space, extend your leg and lean forward a little bit. This helps to stretch the hamstring area too.
Moreover, if it is possible to have a short break while you are traveling by car have it. It will be easier to get stretched when you are outside the car. A good choice is to stretch the front of the thighs and hip flexors. So, stand on one leg and take your foot in your arm at the back, bend the knee, and pull your foot to your glutes. While keeping your thigh parallel with the standing leg. Repeat with another leg.
Try not to cross your legs because it restricts blood flow even more, because big arteries and veins are pressed. Besides, it can increase discomfort in your back.
If it is possible to have lumbar support it will help you to maintain proper lumbar curvature and decrease tension in your spine.
Remember to change your position frequently because static body posture reduces muscle activity, and blood flow and increases tension in your body. Try to lean in front and back, add rotation of your trunk to one side and another at the same time elongate your spine from top of the head. These exercises are possible to do traveling by car or plane.
Seat height adjustability is very important for blood volume flow. The restricted popliteal area (back of your knee) reduces blood flow. If your feet cannot touch the floor – especially for short-legged people or children – this increases compression in the popliteal area. This is generally worse in an airplane where seat adjustability is very poor than it is in a car.
However, if you or your child's feet are hanging, place some support under the feet. It will help you to avoid restrictions in the popliteal area after long travel legs will feel much better.
If your child or yourself falls asleep during travel, make sure that the position of the body is comfortable, and the head has support at the back and on the sides. Otherwise when you or your child wakes up the neck will be painful.
When you can, stand up and walk in the plane. When traveling by car, stop every hour and walk a bit. By walking, you increase the activity of many muscles, and in turn, increase metabolism and blood flow.
Do not forget to take a stretch or simply breathe in your abdominal area. During traveling, breathing is restricted because of posture, chest position, or even tight clothes. So a few deep inhales and exhales will help you to restore the work of the diaphragm.
Another tip is to avoid tight clothes because these restrict your movements and breathing. Avoid tight trousers, especially in the abdominal area, and let your abdomen move freely while you are breathing during travel.
Dress in loose, comfortable clothing for flights or long-distance car trips. When possible, remove the outer layers of clothing to free your movements even more.
Moreover, wear comfortable shoes and socks that do not restrict your ankles, feet, and fingers motion.
It is important to stay hydrated, as drinking enough water can reduce swelling. Dehydration increases blood viscosity which reduces blood flow and changes blood biochemistry. Low humidity in an airplane cabin during flight increases dehydration, so drink enough water without sweeteners before, during, and after the flight.
Furthermore, it is important to reduce the amount of caffeine in coffee, tea, and other drinks, in order to stay hydrated.
Long-haul flights which last for more than four hours can increase leg edema. Moreover, the risk increases with age, with younger adults having less swelling of the legs than older adults. Compressive socks have a positive effect in reducing leg edema and reducing discomfort in the legs during a long-haul flight.
If you have an increased risk of thromboembolism or a blood clot, consult your doctor about other travel tips for long-haul flights and car trips.
It is difficult to avoid swollen legs if you fall asleep or are busy with other activities such as watching an in-flight movie or working with a computer. Whenever possible, do simple exercises such as circles and foot pumps that won't interfere with your other activities.
- International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. Leg swelling, comfort and fatigue when sitting, standing, and sit/standing.
- Journal Of Thrombosis And Haemostasis. Effect of leg exercises on popliteal venous blood flow during prolonged immobility of seated subjects: implications for prevention of travel-related deep vein thrombosis.
- European Journal Of Internal Medicine. The effect of compression stocking on leg edema and discomfort during a 3-hour flight: A randomized controlled trial.