What is it?
Edema is when excess fluid gets trapped in your body’s tissues and causes swelling. This can happen anywhere in your body, but it's most common in the feet, ankles, and legs, and this is called "peripheral edema". If you've been sitting or standing for a long time, you might notice your feet or ankles are a bit puffy - that's peripheral edema. Edema used to be called “dropsy,” and can sometimes be seen by pressing on your shin with a finger and seeing an indent left behind.
What causes it?
Sometimes, it's because your body isn't moving around enough, like if you've been sitting on a long car trip. When we move our muscles contract, and that squeezes fluid back towards the heart preventing edema. Many people would get some peripheral edema if they sat in one place for 10 hours straight. Other times, it might be because your body is having a hard time getting rid of salt, which makes your body hold onto more water. Poor nutrition or a diet low in protein can be a cause. Certain medicines can also cause it. Edema can be a sign of heart, kidney, or liver dysfunction. Most of the time a simple exam and some tests can help us determine the cause.
How do doctors treat it?
Treating edema depends on what's causing it.
If it's because you're not moving around enough, your doctor might suggest you take more walks or do some other exercises.
If it's because of a medication, your doctor might adjust the medication or change it.
If it's because your body is having a hard time getting rid of salt, your doctor might recommend eating less salty food.
In some cases, a doctor might prescribe medicine that helps your body get rid of extra fluid. Diuretics, or water pills can be very helpful for some people who have edema.
So, what can reduce peripheral edema without medications?
Raise your legs above the level of your heart while sitting - this lets gravity move the excess fluid flow back towards your heart.
Avoid standing or sitting for long periods. Take movement breaks!
Water immersion in a swimming pool (not a hot tub!) for 20 minutes may reduce leg volume(2).
Wear compression stockings. These will sometimes need to be prescribed, and in some cases it’s not safe to use them at all. Talk to your physician first.
Continue to move and exercise according to recommendations from your physician.
If it’s difficult to walk safely, try these while sitting:
Ankle pumps: point your toes to your nose & hold for 4 seconds. Then point your toes to the floor and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
When should you seek help?
If you notice swelling in your body, notify, especially if it's sudden or only on one side of your body. If the swelling gets worse or if you start feeling sick in other ways, like having chest pain or trouble breathing, it's important to get help immediately. Even if it's not an emergency, you should always talk to your doctor about any swelling you have.
Dr. Ben Archekin