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Going overseas? A Podiatrist’s guide on how to keep your feet and legs healthy during a long flight

When you’re sitting upright and inactive for a long period of time, several things can happen to your legs and feet:

  • The central blood vessels in your thighs can be compressed, making it difficult for the blood to get pumped to your heart.
  • Leg muscles can become tense, leading to aches and pains, and can even occur after your flight.
  • The normal body mechanism for returning fluid to the heart, can be inhibited and gravity can cause the fluid to collect in your feet, resulting in swelling around the feet and ankles.
  • Studies have shown that prolonged immobility may be a risk factor in the formation of blood clots in the legs; deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Particular medical conditions may increase the risk of formation of blood clots if associated with prolonged immobility:

  • Personal or family history of DVT.
  • Recent surgery or injury, especially to lower limbs or abdomen.
  • Blood disorders leading to increased clotting tendency.
  • Immobilisation for a day or more.
  • If you are aged above 40 years.
  • Oestrogen hormone therapy, including oral contraceptives.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Tobacco smoking.
  • Former or current malignant disease.
  • Obesity.
  • Dehydration.
  • Heart failure.
  • Varicose veins.

If any of these categories apply to you or you have any concerns about your health and flying, we recommend you seek professional medical advice before traveling.

How can I prevent air travel complications?

  • Compression stockings/tights can assist in preventing swelling of the ankles and feet and they may improve the blood return to the body from the lower legs. You may like to talk to your Podiatrist/GP about this. The stockings may be purchased from a pharmacy, where they include proper fittings. Alternatively, Compression tights by sports brands such as 2XU, Skins & Body Science can offer similar compression and can be used for exercise proposes also.
  • A prescribed stretching program from a Podiatrist can help and be used (in conjunction with the other leg exercises).
  • Comfortable, well-fitted covered shoe wear is highly recommended on long flights; DO NOT WEAR SANDALS OR THONGS!
  • Leg and foot exercises (as recommended below) help reduce aches/pains and further complications:

1. Ankle Circles

Lift feet and draw a circle with the toes, simultaneously moving one foot clockwise and the other foot counterclockwise. Reverse circles. Rotate in each direction for 15 seconds. Repeat.

Ankle circles

2. Foot Pumps

Foot motion is in three stages.
1. Start with both heels on the floor and point toes upward as high as you can.
2. Put both feet flat on the floor.
3. Lift heels high, keeping balls of feet on the floor.
Repeat these three stages in a continuous motion for 30-seconds. Repeat.

Foot pumps

3. Knee Lifts

Lift leg with knee bent while contracting your thigh muscle. Alternate legs. Repeat 20 to 30 times for each leg.

Knee lifts

4. Knee to Chest

Bend forward slightly. Clasp hands around the left knee and hug it to your chest. Hold stretch for 15 seconds. Keeping hands around the knee, slowly let it down. Alternate legs. Repeat 10 times.

Knee to chest

Do these exercises for 3-4 minutes per hour while seated. We also suggest walking around the cabin occasionally too.

(Qantas Airways 2014)

Information and pictures gathered from: Qantas Airways Limited 2014, Your health inflight, viewed 22nd April 2014, <http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/your-health-inflight/global/en#jump5>

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Adam Wiles

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