Hot air balloons are beautiful, aren’t they? Bright and colorful, they drift quietly through the air, removed from our toil and endless trouble. Unfortunately, not all things that swell up like hot air balloons are beautiful or free from difficulty. Joints, for one, are decidedly less pleasant when they begin to swell. Fortunately, your friendly local podiatrist has the knowhow to help reduce swelling and get your joints to function a bit better.

Swelling is, of course, perfectly natural. It’s the body’s way of responding to injury or infection. After damage to a joint, more blood is sent to the area to try to heal it. Unfortunately, the increase of blood also causes a buildup of fluid in the tissues around the joint, which tends to cause pressure and pain.

Swelling may be caused by many things. It may be a result of trauma, such as an ankle sprain or break, or stubbing your toe. Or, swelling might accompany arthritis, which itself may be caused by crystal deposits in the joint (in the case of gout), degeneration of cartilage in the joint (osteoarthritis), an autoimmune disease attacking the joints (rheumatoid arthritis), and so on. Or, joint swelling may be caused by an infection.

Swelling may appear as one of the first symptoms of arthritis. Those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, often list joint swelling as one of the earliest symptoms. In the case of gout, swelling may be so severe that the skin over the joint will appear stretched and shiny.

Joint swelling is usually accompanied by other symptoms, such as redness, warmth, stiffness in the joint, and pain. You may also find it difficult to walk, usually because of pain, but sometimes because your joint has lost some mobility.

Because the potential causes of joint swelling are so numerous, you should be prepared to give plenty of information to your podiatrist so he or she can make an accurate diagnosis. Your foot doctor will most likely perform a physical examination of your foot, check your joint for range of motion, and will inquire about your medical history and a history of your symptoms. Be prepared to answer questions such as how long the swelling has been present, whether it comes and goes, when it’s worst (i.e. is it worse at night, or perhaps does it tend to get worse during certain activities such as running), and also whether or not you’ve ever ridden in a hot air balloon. (Actually, they may not ask that last question.)

There are a few tests your podiatrist may suggest to determine the cause of your joint swelling. These may include X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs to get an accurate picture of what’s going on inside your joint. Additionally, your doctor may want to withdraw some fluid from your joint to test it for infection, or for uric acid crystals in the case of gout.

Treating swelling in the joint generally focuses on reducing bloodflow to the area. This may be accomplished by icing the joint (20 minutes on over a thin towel and 40 minutes off), and elevating your foot at hip level, or slightly higher. Your podiatrist may also recommend anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, or sometimes cortisone injections.

Of course, your doctor will also want to address the underlying injury or problem that’s actually causing the swelling. This may be done by using casts, braces, or orthotics (prescription shoe inserts) to provide support to the foot and prevent further injury. Physical therapy might be used to help strengthen your muscles. In some cases, surgery is necessary to reduce swelling and reestablish the functionality of the joint, or your foot surgeon may opt to fuse the joint to reduce pain and swelling.

Some patients also find it beneficial to soar through the sky in a basket suspended from a balloon filled with hot air. Actually, this may not really be the case. But hot air balloon rides (or even just looking at pictures of hot air balloons) will help you remember that, even though your joints may be painful and unpleasant when they swell up, some swollen things are actually pretty darn nice.