What’s causing your legs to swell?
You’ve been on your feet all day at work and when you get home, you notice that your lower legs are swollen. While sitting on the couch to watch your favorite TV show, you prop your feet up on a couple of pillows. This seems to help. However, it happens again the next day. Why? Is there something wrong with your legs? Is there anything you can do to prevent it from happening?
Edema is swelling caused by excess fluid being trapped in your body’s tissues. It can appear in any part of your body, but is more often noticed in the arms/hands and legs/feet (peripheral edema). It’s the result of the tiny blood vessels in your body (capillaries) leaking fluid causing it to build up in surrounding tissue resulting in swelling. Besides swelling, other symptoms include stretched/shiny skin, skin that pits after being pressed for several seconds, and increased abdominal size (fluid is collecting in the abdominal cavity—this is called ascites). If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor. If you have signs of fluid building up in your lungs (pulmonary edema), like shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or chest pain, go to the nearest emergency room.
The level of edema can range from mild to severe. Mild cases are usually the result of sitting/staying in one position too long, eating too much salty food, having premenstrual symptoms, or being pregnant. It can also be a side effect of medications, like those to treat high blood pressure, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), estrogen, steroid drugs, and certain diabetic medications. Underlying medical conditions usually cause severe cases of edema and typically develop over time. Some conditions that can trigger it are congestive heart failure (associated with pulmonary edema in addition to peripheral edema), cirrhosis (liver damage and associated with ascites), kidney disease/damage, weakness/damage to veins in your legs, inadequate lymphatic system, and severe/long-term protein deficiency. If not treated, edema can cause complications, like increasingly painful swelling, difficulty walking, stiffness, stretched skin that is itchy/uncomfortable, increased risk for infection, decreased blood circulation, diminished elasticity of arteries/veins/joints/muscles, and increased risk of skin ulcers.
Mild edema is usually treated by elevating your legs to the level of your heart or higher. You can accomplish this by placing them on a pillow or two while lying on the couch or in bed. If your edema is the result of a medication your taking, your doctor will recommend changing it. For severe edema, it’s vital to manage any underlying conditions. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help eliminate the excess fluid by helping your body reabsorb it and expel it as urine. These medications are known as diuretics and the most commonly used one is furosemide. If you have ascites, you’ll need to have the fluid drained (paracentesis) in addition to addressing the underlying cause.
Some other measures you can try are increasing your activity level because movement helps pump excessive fluid back to your heart. Check with your doctor before starting any new routine to ensure that it won’t be too much. You can also try gently massaging the area to help push fluid out of the tissues. Reducing your salt intake is key since it increases your fluid retention. Once the swelling has gone down, you can try wearing compression stockings or sleeves. These are designed to prevent further swelling by keeping pressure on your limbs. If you try to use these to reduce swelling, you could end up restricting blood flow, so it’s important to check with your doctor to ensure that it’s okay to use them.
To prevent edema, there are several things that you can do. The most important is to live a healthy lifestyle. This means eating a healthy diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, lean meats/proteins, and whole grains while limiting fats, excessive sugar, and reducing salt. You should also try to be as active as possible and exercise several times a week. Reducing stress and get plenty of rest are two other key components. Don’t smoke or use illegal drugs and drink alcohol only in moderation.
Edema can be a sign of a mild problem or a severe one. If it’s an ongoing issue, it definitely needs to be addressed. If you have any questions or concerns about edema, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the MedlinePlus’ Edema page at https://medlineplus.gov/edema.html