Foot swelling and pain are common in pregnancy. Find out what contributes to this second- and third-trimester symptom and how you can alleviate it.
Well into her first pregnancy, Michelle Day’s left foot began to noticeably swell—and ache. At first the Riverton, Utah, mom could alleviate the pain by elevating her feet at work, then staying off her feet completely once at home. But a few weeks later, her other foot began swelling too, and no amount of rest would ease the hurt.
“My skin felt stretched like balloon ready to pop,” recalls Day. “Honestly, I thought if you took a pin to my feet they might break.” A check-up with her OB-GYN confirmed that Day’s swelling indicated a serious condition called preeclampsia. Day’s doctor prescribed bed rest, and after three and half weeks in bed, Day delivered a healthy baby boy almost a month early. While Day’s condition is rare, the swelling she experienced in her pregnancy is not. Some 75 percent of pregnant women experience swelling, especially in the third trimester. Fortunately, there are several ways to ease the aches and keep swelling from worsening.
Will my feet get bigger?
Some women experience swollen feet and a bigger shoe size during pregnancy predominantly due to release of the hormone relaxin, explains Dr. Glenn Copeland, author of The Good Foot Book and a podiatrist at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Canada. “This hormone causes the ligaments of the foot to become lax and stretch out. Although the foot appears to be growing, it is a result of lax ligaments.”
Water retention is another reason feet grow during pregnancy. The body requires more fluid to regulate blood flow and provide liquid for the developing baby, including amniotic fluid. “Pregnant women retain fluid especially in the third trimester,” says Dr. Copeland. “This causes the foot to spread, making it wider.”
Added weight gain may affect your feet in a couple of ways. First, your feet may stretch and widen during pregnancy to absorb added weight. Second, your feet may swell with the added pressure. How your pregnancy affects your feet is individual—some women’s feet return to pre-pregnancy size, while other women will notice that they’ve increased a half to a whole size permanently. Along the same lines, some women experience foot swelling during pregnancy, while a lucky 25 percent of pregnant women never do.
Can swollen feet be a sign of a serious problem?
According to the Mayo Clinic, pressure from your growing uterus on the veins that return blood from your feet and legs may leave you with swollen feet and ankles, a common pregnancy complaint for many women in their second and third trimesters.
There are several other common factors that can contribute to swollen feet. The University of Maryland Medical Center points out that temperature and/or weather in addition to physical activity can affect your feet, and that “feet can change shape and increase in size by as much as five percent depending on whether a person is walking, sitting, or standing.”
Sometimes, however, swollen feet indicate a more serious condition known as preeclampsia—a pregnancy-induced hypertension which occurs in five to 10 percent of pregnancies. “Symptoms that can appear in association with high blood pressure include excessive swelling of the hands, face, or feet,” says Margaret Buxton, a certified nurse midwife at the Vanderbilt University’s School of Nursing’s West End Women’s Health Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Your OB-GYN or midwife will check your urine for increased protein, which would confirm preeclampsia. “Swelling of the feet in the absence of protein in the urine and high blood pressure is usually benign,” says Buxton.
If you have preeclampsia, your physician may provide several solutions, such as bed rest or even hospitalization. Preeclampsia can lead to serious health problems for the mother such as weakened nervous system, blood vessels, and kidneys, as well as permanent problems for the oxygen-deprived unborn baby.
Are these foot problems permanent?
Most women’s feet will return to a normal size within a few months after childbirth. Some mothers’ feet grow one-half to one shoe size—permanently. Other than needing a new postnatal shoe wardrobe, your feet should be fine.
Although the incidence is rare, Dr. Douglas Albreski, director of Podiatric Dermatology Services at the University of Connecticut Health Center, reports that a few pregnant women visit his office each year due to an inflammation of the foot called plantar fasciitis. According to Dr. Albreski, pregnancy is a risk factor for this condition because added weight during pregnancy puts so much pressure on feet.
“Plantar fasciitis is a very common problem in the general population and usually affects women over the age of forty,” says Dr. Albreski. This painful condition occurs when the thick band of tissue on the bottom of your foot, which acts as a shock absorber for your body, becomes weakened or irritated. In most cases, the condition can be treated with adjustments in a pregnant woman’s lifestyle.
What can I do to ease foot pain and swelling?
“Wear good shoes,” touts Buxton. “I can’t overemphasize the importance of supportive shoes that protect the arches from strain and cushion the foot during standing and walking.” Athletic shoes provide the most shock absorption, while laces allow the foot to widen as your pregnancy progresses.
Although they may seem like the cheapest, easiest solution for housing your expanding toes, don’t wear sandals or flip-flops, cautions Buxton. “These are the worst choices for [pregnant] footwear; some of these shoes have no arch support at all.” Take care with your shoe choices during pregnancy—if something is too tight, don’t put your foot through the stress; and avoid high heels.
Choose the right size socks, too. “Tight socks will encourage swelling,” says Niki Pearce, a certified midwife at the Cleveland Clinic. Wear sock fabrics that allow the foot to breathe, such as cotton instead of nylon.
It’s important that you take extra care of your feet as well. “Make sure your toenails are cut evenly and that they are not digging into the skin around the nail,” suggests Pearce. “Remove calluses with a pumice stone and use pads designed to take the pressure off of bunions and calluses, if you have them.” Use a moisturizer on your feet if they appear dry or cracked.
Additionally, you should drink plenty of water to stave off fluid retention, says Buxton, and take frequent rest breaks if you work on your feet. Your doctor or midwife may suggest additional steps toward easing foot pain such as support stockings or simple exercises to maintain your foot’s flexibility.
Dr. Marjorie Greenfield, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Case School of Medicine and University Hospitals of Cleveland, suggests the following to help alleviate foot swelling and pain:
- Lying on your left side or elevating your feet when sitting.
- Swimming and/or immersing your body in a cool bath (the water pressure on the skin reduces swelling).
- Avoiding very salty or spicy foods.
What are some ways to pamper feet during pregnancy?
For at least part of your pregnancy you may not be able to see your toes, let alone care for them. Here are some easy ways to soothe your hard-working feet:
- Ask your partner to cut your toenails.
- Rub lotion on your feet or have your partner lend a hand (and while he’s at it, encourage him to give you a much-needed foot massage!)
- Enjoy a nice foot bath.
- Put up your feet and relax.