Simply stated, edema is swelling from excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissues. It appears with stretched or shiny skin, puffiness of the tissues, and skin that retains a dimple after being pressed for several seconds. If left untreated, edema can lead to a range of complications, from stiffness and difficulty walking to skin ulcers and scarring between layers of tissue.
Increased fluid in the leg (edema) is one of the symptoms of lipodermatosclerosis, a condition involving inflammation of the subcutaneous fat in the lower leg, just above the ankle. This condition is associated with vein disease and obesity.
Edema has many causes, from heart failure to pregnancy to certain medications. At South Texas Vein Institute, we offer both conservative and medical treatments to correct and alleviate symptoms of vein disease, including edema. In a one-on-one consultation, our skilled physician can evaluate your symptoms and tailor a conservative treatment program to treat the underlying cause of your condition.
How Does Edema Occur?
Edema can be defined as observable swelling caused by accumulation of fluids in body tissues. It occurs most commonly in the feet, ankles, legs, and hands. This form is referred to as peripheral edema.
Body tissues are made up of cells, blood vessels, and connective tissue holding the cells together. Fluids found outside the cells are mostly stored in either the blood vessels or in the spaces not within the cells known as interstitial spaces. With various body conditions, excess fluid can accumulate in either of these locations.
As fluids can accumulate in interstitial spaces in the organs of the body, there are a number of different types of edema. Pulmonary edema occurs when excess fluid collects in the interstitial tissue around the alveoli (air spaces) in the lungs. Extreme, generalized edema involves widespread accumulation of fluids in all the cavities and tissues of the body simultaneously.
Types of Edema
There are many different types of edema, and each type can indicate a range of underlying health conditions:
- Pulmonary edema: Excess fluid collecting in the lungs may indicate acute lung injury or congestive heart failure.
- Cerebral edema: This type of edema occurs in the brain for a number of potentially life-threatening reasons. Symptoms may include headache, neck pain, vision loss, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or change in mental state or consciousness.
- Macular edema: This is a serious complication of diabetic retinopathy (damage to the retina of the eye caused by complications of diabetes). Swelling occurs in the part of the eye that enables detailed, central vision.
- Peripheral edema: This type of edema affects the legs, feet, ankles, hands, or arms and may occur in cases of venous disease. Symptoms include swelling, puffiness, and stiffness of a body part.
Causes of Edema
Edema occurs when the capillaries (tiny blood vessels) leak fluid and the fluid builds up in the surrounding tissue, leading to swelling. There are many different types of edema, and many different causes.
Common Causes of Mild Edema
Many people have had the experience of swelling in their feet and ankles on at least one occasion. Mild, temporary cases of edema can result from various causes, including:
- Premenstrual symptoms
- Eating too much salt
- Sitting or staying one position for too long
Medications that Can Cause Edema
Medications are prescribed and taken to improve the patient’s health, but they often come with side effects. Unfortunately, edema is a common side effect of certain medications, including:
- High blood pressure meds
- Steroid medications
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Thiazolidinediones (a type of diabetes medication)
Underlying Medical Conditions that Can Cause Edema
It is important to see a doctor when edema occurs as more than a mild case that goes away in a day or two. It may be a sign of a serious underlying medical condition. Diseases and conditions that may cause edema include:
- Congestive heart failure: With congestive heart failure, one or both of the lower chambers of the heart have lost the ability to effectively pump blood. As a result, blood can pool in the legs, ankles, and feet, causing edema.
- Cirrhosis of the liver: Damage to the liver in this condition can cause fluid to accumulate in the abdominal cavity and in the legs.
- Kidney disease: Extra sodium and fluid circulating in the body can cause edema in patients with kidney disease. Edema in this condition usually occurs in the legs and around the eyes.
- Lymphatic system inadequacy: Part of the function of the lymphatic system is to clear excess fluids from the body. When this system is damaged, as sometimes occurs in cancer surgery, lymph nodes and vessels may not function properly in the damaged area, leading to edema.
- Long-term, severe protein deficiency: The human body needs protein to function properly. An extreme protein deficiency in the diet over a long period of time can lead to accumulation of fluids and edema.
- Damage to or weakness of the veins in the legs: Chronic venous insufficiency is a condition in which the one-way valves in the leg veins are damaged or weakened. This allows blood to pool in the veins of the legs and causes swelling. If sudden swelling occurs in only one leg, along with pain in the calf muscle, see a doctor immediately. These symptoms could be caused by a blood clot in one of the leg veins (deep vein thrombosis).
Conservative Treatments for Edema and Leg Vein Problems
At South Texas Vein Institute, we have dedicated our practice to treatment of vein conditions. We manage every aspect of each patient’s vein care, providing optimal treatment from a range of minimally-invasive procedures, surgical procedures, and conservative treatments.
Conservative treatments are those measures a patient can take to maintain optimal health that do not involve any type of medical procedure. We offer conservative treatments for patients who have edema caused by weakness of or damage to the veins in the legs.
Compression therapy is the primary conservative treatment to alleviate symptoms that occur when the veins in the legs are weakened or damaged. It provides a simple and highly effective way to increase blood flow in the lower limbs. Compression stockings apply gentle pressure to the ankles and legs, stretching the vein walls, improving circulation, and reducing swelling.
The type of compression hose worn should be determined by a qualified physician to ensure that you have the correct amount of pressure in the right locations for an appropriate length of time. Compression stockings create graduated pressure from the ankle up the leg. By applying pressure to the legs and veins, they can help the blood return to the heart from the feet and legs, improve lymphatic drainage, and reduce swelling of the tissues.
Walking and Other Exercise for the Legs
Walking and exercising the legs activates the calf muscle pump – often referred to as the body’s secondary heart. When the leg is active, as in walking, swimming, or other exercise, the calf muscle pump helps propel the blood back up to the heart from the feet and lower legs. This improves circulation and helps reduce swelling.
When muscle tone in the lower legs is not good, blood can accumulate, increasing vein pressure and swelling. Regular exercise that improves muscle tone in the legs can help the calf muscle pump function more effectively, relieve pressure in the veins, edema, and other symptoms associated with vein disease.
Elevating the Legs
Gravity can be a factor in how well the leg veins function. Elevating the legs above the hips for as much time as possible can help promote normal blood circulation. This can lead to significant improvement in swelling and other symptoms.
When you are sitting during the day, put your feet up on a foot stool or footrest as often as you can. Rest your feet on a pillow to elevate the legs above the hips while you are sleeping.
Avoidance of Prolonged Sitting or Standing
Sitting or standing for long periods of time can cause problems with the veins in the legs. It can cause blood to pool in the leg veins, increasing pressure in the veins, which can weaken the walls and damage the valves.
If your job involves sitting at a desk or being on your feet for extended periods of time, the best thing to do to protect your veins is to take a break and walk around for a few minutes. Do this after every 45-minute period of sitting or standing.
Significant Weight Loss
Carrying around a lot of excess weight puts pressure on the veins of the legs. This can contribute to or aggravate the symptoms of varicose veins and related conditions. Shedding excess pound can help reduce the pressure on the leg veins and help relieve swelling and other symptoms.
Conservative treatments can significantly reduce edema and other symptoms associated with vein disease. If you have edema of the lower legs related to vein problems, our accomplished and experienced vein doctors at South Texas Vein Institute can custom-tailor a conservative treatment plan for you.