What is Edema and What Causes It?
Edema is the occurrence of swelling caused by the accumulation of fluid in the body’s tissue. It is often seen in the legs, ankles and feet of individuals but it can also involve other areas of the body. Edema can have a multitude of causes. This article focuses only on the cause of edema as the result of weakened or damaged leg veins.
Edema in the legs can be an early warning sign of chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). Nevertheless, it is rather difficult if not impossible to make a clear distinction between the very common physiological swelling of the legs and swelling from actual CVI.
In weak or damaged leg veins the valves that normally help to push blood back up the legs toward the heart are no longer working adequately. This causes blood to pool in the legs and fluids to permeate into the tissue of the affected leg resulting in varying degrees of swelling. With individuals that are standing or sitting immobile for many hours during their workdays, the swelling can be accompanied by pain, feelings of heaviness and even cramping of the legs.
Untreated edema usually doesn’t just go away. In fact, if not treated properly and systematically, over time edema can progress into more serious issues such as infections or there can be risk of skin ulcers, scarring of tissue, or reduced elasticity of joints and muscles, which in turn can lead to stiffness and reduced mobility.
Leg swelling can be also be another symptom of an underlying condition or illness (e.g. heart disease) or it can happen due to an infection possibly accompanied by fever, irritation and a hot sensation around the infected area.
Consequently, if you frequently experience swelling in your legs and/or other areas of your body, you need to be proactive and take action. Make an appointment with your physician or a specialist to explore what is causing your edema and to determine a suitable course of treatment.
In rarer cases leg swelling can also manifest itself together with other symptoms that could be life threatening and should be evaluated by emergency medical care without delay.
Immediate medical care is required if swelling occurs along with more serious symptoms such as these:
- Dizziness or shakiness
- Abdominal pain and/or swelling
- Chest pain (sharp or dull)
- Neck or arm pain
- Jaw pain
- High fever
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Warm skin area that is red and irritated
- Sudden weight gain (possibly from fluid retention)
Edema Treatment – How Can Compression or Support Stockings Help with Swelling?
For generally healthy individuals with swelling in the lower legs that is not related to venous issues it may be sufficient to wear support stockings or support pantyhose of a lower compression level (usually under 20 mmHg compression).
Edema can occur as a physical phenomenon in individuals that have to sit or stand for extended periods of time. A study conducted with volunteers at the University of Vienna, Austria *) several years ago concluded that compression stockings worn at calf level can prevent end of the day edema in people working in professions that require long periods of standing or sitting. In cases such as this, the compression level for the graduated compression stockings must be in the range of 11-21 mmHg to be effective.
Individuals with chronic swelling related to venous insufficiency, varicose veins or other vein conditions should be evaluated by their health care provider or a vein specialist. Venous conditions of a more advanced nature may require compression stockings of higher compression levels to be effective. These compression stockings should be prescribed by a physician. The patient must then be properly measured for the compression stockings. You can attempt to do the measuring yourself or make an appointment at a medical supply house with a properly trained fitter to ensure the best possible fit of the compression stockings.
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Other Ways to Reduce Swelling
To keep swelling down, in addition to wearing compression stockings your health care provider may also recommend keeping your legs raised when sitting, limiting how much salt you eat or taking a medicine called a diuretic – also known as a water pill.
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