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Are your legs swelling? Here’s why — and what to do

By The Health News Team | August 30, 2022
Person experiencing leg pain while gardening

It might start with swelling or stretched, shiny skin. Some people experience a feeling of heaviness or fullness. It can be in one leg or both. Leg edema — or swelling — can be itchy, painful and affect one’s quality of life.

“Leg edema occurs when fluid in the blood vessels seeps into the surrounding tissue,” says Dr. Nancy Ly, a Sharp Community Medical Group board-certified cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “It can cause swelling, pain and tension — usually in the feet and ankles — and can affect one’s quality of life.”

According to Dr. Ly, common causes of leg edema include:

  • Poor lymphatic drainage, which leads to excess fluid leaking from the blood vessels

  • Venous insufficiency, or weakened valves of the veins, causing blood to flow back down into the legs rather than flowing upward to the heart

  • Excess blood in vessels that seeps into surrounding tissue due to congestive heart failure

  • Low levels of albumin — a protein made by the liver — in the bloodstream due to liver disease, kidney disease or malnutrition

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is when a blood clot forms in a vein

  • Certain types of cancer, which can slow drainage of body fluids

  • Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, which can damage the lymphatic system

  • Pregnancy, which can lead to extra fluid in the body and pressure from the growing fetus

  • Medications, including certain over-the-counter pain relievers, steroids, blood pressure medications, antidepressants and hormones

  • Standing or sitting for too long, which causes water in your body to flow down into your legs

  • Eating foods high in salt, which leads to the retention of water in your lower extremities

Treatments for leg edema
Mild edema may be relieved by regular movement and exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing the amount of salt in your diet, wearing support stockings, massaging the area to improve circulation, and elevating your legs when sitting or lying down. Your doctor may also recommend taking a diuretic, a medication to remove extra salt and fluid in your body.

However, leg edema due to medications or serious illness usually requires medical treatment. This may include treating the underlying condition causing the edema, medication adjustments, lymphatic drainage, compression devices, vein treatments or surgical therapy.

“If leg edema is left untreated, it can lead to increased swelling, pain and stiffness,” Dr. Ly says. “It can also increase your risk of infection and decrease blood circulation throughout your body. Talk with your doctor about your edema to identify its cause and begin appropriate treatment.”

It is important to seek care immediately if you experience edema with shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest pain — all signs of pulmonary edema. Leg pain and swelling after prolonged sitting, such as on a long flight or drive, that won’t resolve may be a sign you have developed DVT, which also requires emergency care.

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