If You Have Swelling in 1 of These 3 Areas, It Could Be Heart Disease

Fluid buildup here could mean your heart is in trouble, medical experts warn.

Heart disease is, sadly, a condition that all of us should be concerned about and on the lookout for. Whether caused by lifestyle or hereditary issues, heart disease takes more American lives than any other ailment, with the total adding up to more deaths than those caused by all forms of cancer combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it's not just an issue among older people, either—your risk of having a heart attack increases significantly after just 45 (for men) and 50 (for women). While you're probably aware of the classic warning signs something is wrong with your heart—like pain in your left arm or chest pain or pressure—the more subtle symptoms are the ones you're more likely to miss. That's why experts are warning about other red flags that may also be cause for alarm, including swelling in certain areas of the body. Read on to find out what swollen body parts indicate a potential heart problem.

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Swelling in your legs, feet, or ankles could be a sign of heart disease.

Pregnant woman with swollen feet and leg pain.

Edema is the proper medical term for swelling in the body, and while it can occur in any area for various reasons, if it appears in your legs, feet, or ankles, it can be a sign that your circulatory system is not performing the way that it should and that something is wrong with your heart.

"One of the key functions of your circulatory system is the transport of substances—excess fluid, nutrients, waste products—to other places in the body for use or excretion," Elizabeth Hanes, RN, of New Mexico, writes for HealthGrades. "When you have heart failure, your circulation slows down and becomes less efficient. Fluid that normally would be picked up by the blood and swept away to the kidneys for elimination instead remains behind in places like the lower extremities."

Mayurkumar Bhakta, MD, of HonorHealth Heart Group in Phoenix, Arizona, notes on the company's website that "leg swelling is connected to heart problems typically about 10 to 15 percent of the time."

You may also notice stomach swelling and weight gain.

Side view of senior man suffering from stomachache while sitting on bed at home

The American Society of Clinical Oncology warns that this build up of fluid can also present as swelling in the abdomen along with weight gain. In these cases, the condition is known as ascites.

"Weight gain can be a sign of fluid retention, even if you can't see it," Hanes explains. "People with heart failure should weigh themselves daily."

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You should see your doctor immediately if you notice swelling along with other heart-related symptoms.

Senior man suffering from back pain
jesterpop / Shutterstock

If anything is wrong with your heart, there's a good chance that it will be causing you other difficulties. Experts advise that you should immediately seek medical help if you're experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, or abnormal heart rhythms, Bhakta says. "When symptoms appear to be more systemic, when the entire body is affected by an overload of fluid volume, those are the kinds of things that may be heart-related," he said.

The CDC warns that other less classic symptoms of heart disease can include arrhythmia or a fluttering feeling in the chest caused by palpitations; and in the case of heart failure, there may be fatigue or a swelling of the neck veins. A full-blown heart attack can present with upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea and vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and dizziness as well.

Edema can also be the result of other common occurrences.

Woman with swollen ankle foot

It's important to remember that mild cases of edema can also be caused by sitting in one position for too long (for example, on a long-haul flight), eating too much salty food, being pre-menstrual, or being pregnant, according to the Mayo Clinic. Swelling can also be a side effect from certain drugs, including steroids and certain diabetes medications, like thiazolidinediones.

So swollen feet, ankles, and legs aren't always a sign of heart disease—however, given the importance of your heart to your overall health, if you do notice symptoms of edema or any of these other tell-tale signs of heart trouble, do not self-diagnose; instead seek professional medical advice immediately.

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John Quinn
John Quinn is a London-based writer and editor who specializes in lifestyle topics. Read more