Edema: Swelling of the Legs, Ankles and Feet

Edema: Swelling of the Legs, Ankles and Feet | Dr. Ali Ghahary

Edema is a common condition that causes swelling of the legs, ankles and/or feet due to a buildup of excess fluid, with many potential causes including but not limited to the following:

• Prolonged periods of sitting or standing.
• Venous insufficiency due to tiny valves inside the veins of the legs. (This can also lead to varicose veins.)
• Chronic lung disease, such as bronchitis, emphysema, or COPD.
• Congestive heart failure.
• Low protein levels due to malnutrition, kidney or liver disease.
• Pregnancy.
• Use of certain medications.
• Flights due to high-altitude exposure.

Along with the aforementioned causes, weather can also be a contributing factor for edema, as it is much more common in the summer months when the temperatures are warmer. Edema can also occur as a result of DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis), which develops as a result of a blood clot forming in a deep vein – usually in the legs. This condition can also cause swelling – and, if left untreated, can be life-threatening, as it may lead to a pulmonary embolism.

Symptoms of edema can vary from person to person. Aside from swelling of the legs, ankles, and/or feet, one may also notice that their skin appears stretched or shiny, or their skin may retain a dimple (also known as a pit) after it is pushed for several seconds. If you ever develop symptoms such as shortness of breath, have trouble breathing, or experience chest pain, you should seek immediate medical attention as these can be signs of pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema is caused by congestive heart failure as a result of the heart not being able to efficiently pump blood. That blood can then back up into the veins and move through the lungs, which reduces oxygen levels.

Sometimes edema can be diagnosed based on symptoms alone. In other cases, your doctor may refer you for certain medical imaging tests, such as an X-ray or electrocardiogram, as well as blood tests. These tests are typically done to make sure there are no blockages in the leg’s arteries and to also make sure you don’t have any bad valves within the veins of your legs. As for treating edema, it depends on the cause. Once the cause is determined, the focus then shifts to correcting that cause. One of the best ways to reduce swelling of the legs, ankles and feet is to elevate them above heart level. Applying ice to the affected area can also sometimes be beneficial. It’s also important to reduce your intake of salt. Dr. Ali Ghahary also recommends the use of compression stockings or bandages. A compression stocking or bandage will not only help keep the swelling down, but will also protect the affected area from things like injury, extreme temperatures, and pressure. If you’re someone who sits for long periods of time, try to take breaks and get some movement in. The more you’re moving around and getting things circulating, the less likely you are to develop edema. If you think your edema may be caused by any medications you are taking, speak with your family physician or pharmacist. You may need a change in dosage or have to switch to a different medication depending on the circumstances.

You can find more information on swelling by visiting HealthLink BC.