It is fairly common to have your feet and ankles swell during long airline flights. It's an uncomfortable and sometimes painful side effect of sitting for long periods in a cramped airplane seat. The swelling or edema is caused mainly because of inactivity. When a person walks, the contraction of the muscles in the legs compresses the veins and helps in counteracting gravity in order to move blood back to the heart. Also the way your legs and feet are positioned when seated increases the pressure in your veins and contributes to fluids moving from the blood into the surrounding tissues of the legs and feet.
In addition to swelling, sitting motionless for long periods of time increases your risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT. DVT is a serious and often fatal condition where a blood clot forms in a vein deep within the muscles, usually in the calf or thigh. The following tips will help keep your feet and ankles from swelling and will have you comfortably slipping those shoes back on at the end of your flight!
1. Get up and move around - For every hour of your flight you should try to get up and move around for 3 to 4 minutes before sitting back down.
2. Get blood circulating by doing exercises while in your seat - If you're not able to get up and out of your seat every hour, there are simple exercises you can do to get the blood circulating in your lower extremities. Pointing and flexing your feet as well as rotating your ankles in circles are a good start. Check the back of your in-flight magazine. The airlines usually dedicate at least a page or two to exercises you can do while sitting in your seat.
3. Stay Hydrated- Dehydration causes blood vessels to narrow and blood to thicken. Drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages as they contribute to dehydration.
4. Avoid regular socks - Regular socks that have a constricting elastic band around the calf or ankle will not only become uncomfortable after a while, but will decrease circulation to and thereby increase the swelling.
5. Wear compression socks - Graduated compression socks are special stockings that help promote circulation in your legs. The stockings apply a certain amount of pressure near your ankle and then apply gradually less and less pressure as they move up the leg. The graduated pressure helps push the blood back up the leg and therefore prevents swelling. These aren't your grandma's support stockings. They come in many styles, colors, function (such as athletic) and pressure. Finally, if your feet DO swell, soak them in a tub of Epsom salts. Remember that swelling is caused by too much fluid being retained in the body. When you soak your feet in the Epsom salts, the salt draws water out of the body and is a natural way to reduce swelling.
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