Leg swelling is a common problem that people face. So, if you are facing this, then know you’re not alone. This leg swelling can be of different types. Sometimes, only a single leg swells up. In that case, you might notice one leg bigger than other.
This one-sided leg swelling can be due to a variety of conditions. These include unilateral muscle growth, lymphatic obstruction, fluid retention, venous obstruction, etc. Some of these conditions can be quite severe. But rest assured, the more common causes are nothing to worry about.
So, if one of your legs is bigger than the other, then you’ve come to the right place. That is what we’ll be talking about.
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Is One Leg Bigger Than Other? What Are the Possible Causes?
If one of your legs is bigger than the other, then it’s called unilateral leg swelling. You might notice one of your legs suddenly got bigger. This is what’s termed acute leg swelling. This can be due to deep vein thrombosis, muscle tear, cellulitis, ruptured Baker’s cyst, compartment syndrome, etc.
This swelling can also develop over time. In that case, it’s called chronic. This can happen due to lymphedema, varicose vein, tumors, hemihypertrophy, organ failure, drugs, etc.
Let’s take a deeper look at these conditions.
Unequal Stress on One Leg
We don’t always put equal stress on both legs all the time. Sometimes, one leg works more than the other. It might be because you have a dominant side and work that more.
Unilateral exercises can be responsible for this too. You might tend to work out one leg more than the other. Over time, the muscle of that leg will grow bigger than the other. And this might make it seem like you have one leg bigger than other.
However, this change occurs over a long period of time. And one leg usually doesn’t get too big.
Deep Vein Thrombosis
This condition is responsible for sudden leg swelling. As the name suggests, there are abnormalities with the veins in this condition. Here, blood clots form in the ‘deep veins’ of the legs.
These blood clots can block the veins of the legs. This can prevent the blood from coming up to the heart. And thus the blood gets trapped in the legs. This can make the legs look swollen up.
If you have this condition, you’ll also have pain and warmness in the legs. This may be a serious condition. So, if you suspect you have this, then it’s best to go see a doctor immediately.
This is also a condition affecting the veins. But unlike deep vein thrombosis, it occurs gradually. If you keep standing for a long time, then you may notice this.
Varicose veins affect the superficial veins of the legs. You have many veins just underneath the skin of your legs. These are the superficial veins. Blood from these superficial veins goes to the deep veins. There are many valves that ensure that blood only goes from superficial to deep.
When these valves are blocked, then varicose veins develop. The blood stays inside the superficial veins. And this can make one of your legs look bigger than the other. The superficial veins get all tangled up. So, if you have this condition, you might notice these veins from the outside.
Other than leg swelling, you might also notice pain, heaviness, and bluish coloration on the affected region.
Lymphedema is a cause of chronic unilateral leg swelling. Let’s break down what this disease does from its name. Lymphedema is a combination of two words, lymph, and edema.
Lymph is a type of fluid that circulates inside your body. You can think of it like blood. Lymph moves inside lymphatic vessels much like blood is inside blood vessels.
This fluid is formed from the excessive fluid outside the cells. Typically arteries carry blood to the tissue and veins carry it away. However, the veins can’t carry all of the fluid. Some of the fluid remains in the space outside the cells. This fluid forms the lymph.
Lymphedema occurs when the lymph vessels are obstructed. So, the lymph accumulates in the tissue. If one of the legs’ lymphatics is obstructed, that leg may swell up. This can happen due to several causes.
Primary lymphedema happens when there are birth defects affecting the lymphatics. This is seen at birth or soon after birth. However, some congenital forms can appear late. For example, in lymphedema tarda, there is leg swelling after 35 years of age.
Secondary lymphedema is far more common. And this can happen at any time. Common causes include:
- Injury and trauma
- Lymph node resection
- Infection, like filariasis, is common in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Doctors mainly focus on controlling the symptoms of lymphedema. They’ll tell you to not wear tight clothing and to exercise. Special compression garments and physical therapies are available too. If all else fails, surgery can be done.
This is a type of bacterial skin infection. In this condition, bacteria multiply and infiltrate the deeper layers of the skin. The deeper dermis and the subcutaneous structures are affected.
The most common bacteria responsible are the Streptococci species. These bacteria can access the deeper skin of the leg through cuts or breaks. Then they can multiply and cause tissue destruction. Your immune system responds to this by inflammation. This causes your leg to be swollen, painful, red, and hot. And this condition develops suddenly. So, if your symptoms match these, then you have to go to a doctor immediately.
As you’ve read, cellulitis is caused by bacteria. So, doctors treat this condition with an antibiotic. They may collect samples from your affected leg and run some tests. This way, they can see which antibiotic will be the most suitable.
Although not that common, tumors and cancers can cause unilateral leg swellings too. These tumors do so by compression effect. Tumors can compress the veins or the lymphatics. That way, they don’t let the fluid from leaving the legs. And this is what causes the edema.
There are several types of tumors that can cause one-sided leg swelling. Some of them are malignant lymphoma, renal carcinoma, ureteric carcinoma, leiomyosarcoma, etc. In these cases, other symptoms like anaemia, weight loss, and fatigue will be there too. But you don’t have to worry as the chances of these happening are very low.
Other Causes of Acute
There are a few other conditions that can present with sudden unilateral leg swelling. These mainly involve injury to the various structures in the leg. Among them, a ruptured baker’s cyst is commonly found. Among 25% of people with knee pain this condition.
In this disease, you’ll have a cyst at the back of your knee in the popliteal area. This happens due to a knee injury. And if that cyst ruptures, fluid comes out and goes down to the leg. This is what makes the leg appear swollen.
Another condition that may be responsible is compartment syndrome. This happens when there’s a leg injury like a broken bone or crush injury. In these cases, excessive blood leads out into the soft tissue of the legs. This is what causes your leg to swell up. This is a surgical emergency. So, if you have sudden pain and swelling after an accident, it’s best to go see a doctor immediately.
Sometimes, muscles may tear due to injury and cause leg swelling as well. Gastrocnemius tear is one of the causes of unilateral leg swelling.
Causes of Leg Swelling on Both Sides, Maybe the Culprit?
Bilateral leg swelling, that is, swelling of both legs is far more common than unilateral. And there are quite a few conditions which are responsible. However, at times, one leg may swell up more than the other. Then it may look as if one leg is bigger than other. The causes of these are:
- Standing for long periods of time
- Low protein intake
- Excessive salty food in the diet
- Heart failure
- Kidney diseases
- Liver diseases like cirrhosis or liver failure
You have to keep in mind though, that these cause bilateral leg swelling. So, swelling of both legs will be seen.
What causes one leg to get bigger than the other?
Many conditions can lead to one leg being bigger than the other. It includes putting more stress on one leg, deep vein thrombosis, tumor, venous insufficiency, lymphedema, etc.
Why do I have one leg skinnier than the other?
One leg can be skinnier than the other simply due to an unequal workout. So, the dominant leg will be more muscular. Sometimes, one leg may be skinnier due to atrophy. This occurs if you don’t use that leg or if its blood supply gets hampered.
How can I make my legs symmetrical?
The best way to make legs more symmetrical is through bilateral exercise. Instead of exercises that work the legs individually, try exercises like squats, deadlifts, etc. You can also try working out your skinnier leg more like single leg tap, squat, leg lifts, etc.
There are many conditions in which you’ll see one leg bigger than other. They can be as simple as unequal exercising of both legs. However, they can be due to more serious DVT, compartment syndrome, cancer, etc. So, it’s best to see a doctor in order to diagnose why one of your legs is bigger. And this is especially so if you have other symptoms.