The benefits of elevating your legs
Elevating the legs does provide real benefits. The best way to understand how is to learn more about the ‘plumbing’. Their is a network of blood vessels in our legs to provide circulation. The veins are meant to push the blood back to the heart after making the trip down to your feet. These veins have valves that are meant to help push the blood forward. These valves weaken over time from genetics, increased downward pressure from gravity, etc. With weakened valves it’s much harder for our veins to push the blood back through the circulation. The result: our blood just sits there and settles to gravity. This is where elevating our legs can help! I routinely tell my patients that show signs of early stasis (orange brown mottled discoloration of the power ankles from hemosiderin deposition and varicosities) and those with advanced signs to get into the habit or raising their legs above the level of their heart when at rest to help. When watching television- put your legs up on a pillow on a coffee table or couch. When at a desk or table, try to raise your legs on a chair or an upside down trash can. When in bed, put a pillow below your feet.
This helps gravity work for you by helping reduce fluid buildup in the lower legs and feet.
The benefit here is using gravity to help and not hurt. Since our vein valves weaken over time, they need a little help in the opposite direction. By helping the veins return the blood back to our heart, our arteries are working against a lower pressure in our tissues and can more effectively supply a new round of oxygenated blood to where it needs to go with less pressure resistance.
If you do this right, you should feel better not worse! Technically keeping the legs horizontal or parallel with the surface you are on or just slightly higher to your level of comfort with help. I had always been taught during training to say ‘above the level of your heart’. I find in practice the population of folks we make these recommendations have sometimes had knee and hip replacements and other barriers to this advice. Logically it’s important to recognize we just don’t want the legs dangling to gravity - any level above vertical will help!
My general view practically speaking is that when it comes to a daily habit change we want people to make- it has to be easy to integrate with the readily available resources we have around us all the time. The second I say to get a device or a special contraption- the natural tendency people have is to use it for a few days initially then it gets put on the side and ‘too much of a chore’ to bring it out again. Then people will stop following the advice because ‘I forgot where I put that product’ and don’t realize they could have just put a couch cushion under their legs and had the same result! So, for something like this I think my time with patients is better spent counseling them on readily available resources in their environment that can achieve the same result- couch cushions, empty trash cans turned upside down, pillows, etc.