The Best Way to Treat Diabetes Swollen Feet

An elderly woman putting her swollen feet into black shoes
  • Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects millions of adults and children worldwide.
  • While genetics plays a role in the development of diabetes, other primary causes include an unhealthy diet, eating too much salt, a lack of regular exercise, and being overweight or obese.
  • Diabetes can lead to a buildup of fluid in the body, resulting in swollen legs, ankles, and feet which can lead to immobility.
  • There are a number of ways you can treat and reduce swelling of the feet, including changing your diet, losing weight, and exercising regularly.

More than 37 million Americans have diabetes (about 1 in 10), and approximately 90-95% of them have type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes most often develops in people over the age of 45, but more and more children, teens, and young adults are also developing it.

The number of people with diabetes has increased worldwide and is particularly prevalent in low and middle-income countries.

The sharp rise is, among other reasons, due to the number of people who are overweight or obese and because people do not exercise enough.

Other contributing factors to a higher incidence of diabetes among the socioeconomically disadvantaged include a hazardous home environment, unhealthy behaviors, stress, and a lack of access to healthcare.

Diabetes leads to health complications in many parts of the body and increases the risk of early death. It can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, eating nutritious food, and doing regular exercise.

Based on a recent report, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 130 million adults in the U.S. are diabetic or prediabetic.

The American Diabetes Association states that diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.

Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) condition that occurs when blood glucose levels are too high because the body cannot produce or use the hormone insulin effectively.

Your body breaks down most of the food you eat into sugar (glucose), which is then released into your bloodstream.

When your blood glucose levels increase, it sends a signal to your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin sends the blood sugar into your body’s cells for use as energy.

If you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin or is unable to use insulin effectively. When cells stop responding to insulin or there is an inadequate supply, it results in an excess of blood sugar in your bloodstream.

Too much glucose in your blood for an extended period of time can cause serious foot and other health problems. High blood sugar can injure nerves throughout the body, and diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage) often affects nerves in the legs and feet.

Depending on the affected nerves, diabetic neuropathy symptoms include pain and numbness in the legs, feet, and hands. Some people have mild symptoms but for others, diabetic neuropathy can be quite painful and debilitating.

Diabetic neuropathy is a serious complication of diabetes that may affect as many as 50% of people with diabetes. You can prevent diabetic neuropathy or slow its progress with regular blood sugar management and a healthy lifestyle.

Close-up of a person's two heels. The right heel is dry, discolored, and cracked and looks unhealthy overall.
Key Point: Signs of Diabetic Foot Problems

If you have diabetes, be sure to contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Changes in skin color
  • Changes in skin temperature
  • Swelling in the foot or ankle
  • Pain in the legs
  • Open wounds on your feet that are not healing
  • Ingrown toenails or toenails infected with fungus
  • Corns or calluses
  • Dry cracks in the skin, in particular around the heel
  • An unpleasant, persistent foot odor

What Causes Swollen Feet When You Have Diabetes?

There are several reasons why people have swelling of the feet due to diabetes:

  • Impaired blood flow: When your blood sugar levels are high, it can lead to thickening of the arteries. The more the arteries thicken, the more they shrink and lose elasticity. This impairs blood from flowing to the feet, resulting in swelling due to fluid buildup.
  • Cardiovascular disease: People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing heart-related complications, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and congestive heart failure.
  • Kidney conditions: Diabetes is one of the primary causes of kidney disease. Kidney disease hinders the body’s ability to regulate the balance of fluids, which can lead to swelling in the lower extremities.
  • Medications: Medications used for treating people with diabetes, including certain blood pressure medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and certain nerve pain medications, have side effects that include edema.
  • Neuropathy: Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to nerve damage (neuropathy) in the lower extremities and problems with foot sensation.
  • Charcot foot: This condition leads to serious bone deformity and is associated with diabetes. It can lead to inflammation and swelling of the joints. Early symptoms are redness, swelling, and warm skin on the affected area.
  • Untreated sprains and fractures: Untreated cuts and scrapes put you at risk of inflammatory infection. If you have diabetes, it’s important to regularly monitor your feet for cuts, bruises, and other injuries.

How to Reduce Swelling in Feet as a Result of Diabetes

If your feet are swollen due to diabetes, there are several steps you can take to alleviate edema. Treatment options depend on what’s causing the swelling. Some of the methods to reduce swelling include:

Compression socks

Compression socks squeeze gently on the calves, which helps to stimulate blood circulation to the lower legs and feet. They are available at many stores and come in different compression levels. If you are not sure which ones to use, check with your doctor.

The compression socks must not be too tight because that can actually decrease blood circulation. You can start with light compression socks and increase the compression gradually, if necessary.

Elevate your feet

You can reduce swelling by raising your feet above your heart. Elevating the feet helps blood to flow back from the legs. If you work at a desk all day, you can use an ottoman or another type of footrest to help reduce the swelling. The elevation of your legs sends the fluid away from the legs and feet into the body.

Key Point: The Legs-Up-the-Wall Yoga Pose

Elevating your legs against a wall may also be helpful. Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie on your back and bring your body as close to the wall as you can.
  • Place your legs against the wall.
  • Hold this position for about 10 minutes.

Lower salt intake

One of the causes of water retention is eating a lot of salty foods. Eating less salt will reduce fluid retention and the buildup of fluids. Foods like chips, crackers, deli meat, canned foods, and pizza have high salt content.

To help you cut back:

  • Avoid purchasing and eating processed foods.
  • Choose canned goods with low salt content.
  • Instead of salt, flavor food with herbs such as garlic powder, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and paprika.

Lose excess weight

A healthy weight is essential for one’s well-being. Maintaining the right weight helps to manage diabetes and prevent edema. One of the best treatments for diabetes is weight loss.

The more you weigh, the more pressure you put on your lower extremities. While losing weight may seem overwhelming, making small healthy changes to your everyday routine can lead to big differences.

A healthy weight will enable you to manage diabetes, and help you maintain more stable blood sugar levels.

Exercise regularly

Exercising is a great way to manage your diabetes in a healthy way and to avoid excessive swelling, since exercising promotes weight loss and improves circulation throughout the body. Improved circulation can reduce swelling. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states that for exercises to be beneficial, most adults need to do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activities each week.

Moderate aerobic exercises include dancing, swimming, biking, or brisk walking. HHS also suggests muscle-strengthening activities — like lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises such as push ups—at least two days each week.

Follow a healthy diet

It's common knowledge that the diet we follow impacts our health. To feel better and more energetic, try to:

  • Eat a variety of lean protein, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil to help you get the nutrients your body needs.
  • Drink more water. Your body needs water to function optimally and the more water you drink, the less you retain.
  • Aim for 8 to 10 glasses of water a day — more if you’re engaging in exercise.
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day and avoid drinking too much caffeine, sugary sports drinks, or soda.

Before increasing your water consumption, check with your doctor. If your edema is due to heart or liver problems, your doctor may recommend that you restrict your fluid intake.

A low-carb burger with no bun. The burger is topped with lettuce, tomato, and onions. A fork sits to the side of the burger.

Limit sedentary time

Sitting for long periods of time can result in swelling of the legs and feet. If you have a desk job or you are on a long flight, get up and walk around every one or two hours in order to improve blood circulation in your legs.

Try magnesium supplements

Swelling or fluid retention can be a sign of a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is an essential nutrient that helps regulate nerve function and blood sugar levels, yet many people aren’t getting enough from their diet alone.

Talk to your doctor prior to taking new supplements to ensure that they won’t interact negatively with other medications.

By taking 200mg to 400mg of magnesium per day, you can help treat swollen feet from diabetes.

Explore essential oils

Some people believe that topical application of certain essential oils such as lavender essential oil can promote blood flow and reduce swelling. You should always do a patch test prior to applying any oil to the skin.

Soak your feet in Epsom salt

Epsom salt relieves swelling and reduces inflammation. For best results, add a sufficient amount of Epsom salt to a foot bath of cool water and soak your feet for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Wear good shoes

If you have diabetes and spend much of the day on your feet, make sure you wear the right shoes. Avoid high heels, shoes that are too tight, and those that have no arch support.

Some doctors recommend wearing shoes that are a size too big to prevent swelling. You can also visit a shop that specializes in diabetic footwear.

Get a foot massage

A great way to improve your circulation and ensure a good flow of blood in the legs and feet is to have a massage.

A wooden bowl of Magnesium Sulfate, also known as Epsom salts. There is wooden spoon resting in the salts.

When to See the Doctor

If the swelling on your feet is new or you notice it’s getting worse, it is advisable to see your doctor who will decide on the best remedy for you.

If you notice swelling in one of your legs, get medical attention immediately. This could be a sign of venous thrombosis, which is a blood clot that develops in the veins.

Other causes for concern include the following:

  • A swelling that becomes more and more painful.
  • Reduced sensation or a feeling of numbness in the legs or arms.
  • Difficulty moving the affected limbs.
  • Sores, bruises, or infections in the affected area.

If you experience shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or pain in the chest, it could be a sign of a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism which requires immediate medical attention.

Always let your doctor know how you are doing, especially if there are any changes. Follow their recommendations in order to manage your diabetes and reduce ankle swelling.

Diabetes care involves dedication and ongoing management. If not managed properly, it can lead to problems such as kidney disease, high blood pressure, swelling of the ankles, feet, and, legs, as well as neuropathy and skin complications.

If you notice any changes to your skin tone or you start to lose sensation in your limbs, contact your doctor immediately.

Where Can I Learn More about Diabetes and Other Health Issues?

Diabetes is a serious condition that can affect many parts of the body. If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or believe you’re showing signs, you can talk to a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner from the comfort of your home. Head over to LifeMD to make your first video appointment.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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