November 29, 2022

Having a surgery performed is a stressful experience no matter how you slice it, and it is something most people will experience in some form as we try our best to keep ourselves healthy and thriving. The last thing you want to worry about is extra pain during the healing process, but unfortunately, swelling after surgery can happen to the best of us.

Most people have fast recovery after surgery by getting bed rest and following their doctor's instructions. Swelling, despite being uncomfortable, is a normal part of our body's response to injury -- even minor surgery can result in swelling no matter how careful you are. Swelling traffics white blood cells to the surgical site to aid in healing and protect the affected area.

Foot surgery can be particularly uncomfortable, as walking is something we do every single day, and we'd like to get back to doing it as soon as possible. Today, we'll explain everything you need to know about foot and ankle swelling after surgery, and steps you can take to aid your recovery.

Why do my feet swell after foot surgery?

Swelling is a perfectly normal response to injury, and happens whether, say, you received a small paper cut to an invasive surgical procedure like foot surgery. It's a different kind of swelling from edema, where gravity pulls fluid down to the lower limbs during long periods of immobility.

The swelling you experience is part of the healing process, which occurs in stages. During healing, thousands of cells are sent to the surgical site to being repairing tissue and protecting the limb. This is part of the inflammatory phase, where the influx of these cells to the injury causes inflammation, leading to swelling.

When go through surgery that targets an area of the body far from the heart, such as the legs and lower limbs, more swelling can happen. Gravity will also contribute to swelling after surgery, since more fluid gets drawn down to the lower extremities naturally. This is why adhering to your physician's post-operative recovery instructions is critical, especially when it comes to foot surgery.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help with recovery, reduce swelling, and ensure proper blood flow to the area so you can get back on your feet in no time.

Keep your foot elevated

The first thing your physician will most likely tell you to do is to keep your leg elevated. Proper leg elevation offers an assortment of hidden benefits, such as reducing swelling and alleviating pressure on the lower limbs.

Besides the benefits, doctors often include leg elevation as part of key post-operative instructions in order to reduce the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. This occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, such as those located in the lower limbs, and travels to the lungs, causing pulmonary embolism. This can lead to lowered blood oxygen levels, damaging the lungs and heart.

You may be advised to elevate your legs constantly within the initial first few days in the post-operative period, and then continue to elevate periodically over the next few weeks to aid recovery. This of course depends on the nature of the surgery, so always follow your doctor's post-operative instructions and ask clarifying questions as needed.

Wear compression socks or a compression bandage

Your physician may wrap your legs using elastic bandages, and advise you to wear compression socks during the healing period. It helps by restricting excessive blood flow to the area and improving circulation as you heal. Ensure that the fit or bandage isn't wrapped too tightly, as you don't want to restrict blood flow to an excessive amount, which can make the healing process take longer.

People with diabetes or other conditions that affect blood circulation may be advised to keep the area wrapped for longer than a typical post-operative period, but your physician will let you know what is optimal for your case.

Use ice packs and cold compresses

Cold therapy applied to the affected area will also work to constrict blood vessels and promote moderate blood flow, reducing swelling. It slows down the body's inflammatory response, and fights additional pain. You may be told to apply cold to the area for 10-15 minutes at a time, a couple of times a day.

Consider anti inflammatory medications after speaking with your doctor

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications or drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen are available over the counter, and help reduce inflammation and swelling after your foot surgery. You may find they offer relief especially within the first few weeks of recovery. However, you should always speak with your doctor about which NSAIDs are okay to take, if at all, to ensure that they do not interfere with your prescribed medications and continued treatment.

Should I be worried if the swelling does not improve?

Following the tips above should, in most cases, aid in your recovery and prove beneficial to reducing swelling after your foot surgery. However, if you notice the swelling is not improving in a reasonable time period, or has resolved after the post-operative period explained by your doctor, then it's important to be aware of the warning signs. Being vigilant will allow you to seek medical attention sooner.

Warning signs to watch out for include:

Pain in the chest and difficulty breathing

Any operation where you have to remain immobile increases the risk of developing pulmonary embolism, along with chest infections like pneumonia. This is why your doctor will advise that, at your earliest capability, you try to move around and get circulation going through your lower limbs.

If you experience chest symptoms, it may be accompanied by additional swelling. The risk is highest within the first few days post-operation, but can occur weeks after.

Wound infections

Your surgeon will make every possible attempt to minimize trauma to the area by making the smallest incision possible while keeping the area clean. However, infections can still occur despite precautions anytime during healing when the wound is still open. Signs of infection include heat, swelling, and pus exuding from the incision. Follow your doctor's instructions on cleaning the area, and seek their advice if you experience any symptoms of infection.

Final Thoughts

Recovering after foot surgery is already uncomfortable, but your road to healing should be as smooth as possible. By taking proper action, you can reduce swelling and inflammation, and get back on your feet as soon as possible.