What Is Leg Edema?

The foot of a person with leg edema.
A urinalysis may be ordered if a protein deficiency is suspected.
Article Details
  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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Leg edema is a form of swelling caused by an accumulation of fluid that seeps from stressed capillaries in the lower extremities. There are a variety of situations and conditions that may contribute to the capillary dysfunction associated with edema onset, including remaining physically stationary for prolonged periods of time, the regular use of certain medications, and compromised organ function. Treatment for this potentially serious condition is usually centered on remedying the underlying cause for the swelling, as well as the implementation of dietary changes and use of diuretic medication to flush excess fluids from one’s system. If left untreated, leg edema may impair one’s mobility and lead to the development of serious complications, including compromised circulation and dermal ulceration.

In order to establish whether the edema is occurring as an independent condition or a symptom, several diagnostic tests may be administered following an initial consultation and physical examination. Since some cases of leg swelling are caused by the presence of a protein deficiency, a urinalysis and blood test may be performed to check for markers indicative of any imbalance that may be present. Additional tests may include imaging testing, including a computerized tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to evaluate organ functionality and rule out the presence of any conditions that may contribute to the edema.

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The development of leg edema is essentially the result of compromised capillary function due to injury or stress placed on the affected blood vessels. When normal capillary function is jeopardized, fluid will often leak into one’s system, triggering swelling. In the presence of capillary dysfunction, renal function frequently decreases to compensate for the buildup of excess fluid which only serves to add to the fluid retention, making it worse.

Several situations and conditions may result in the development of a leg edema. The regular use of certain medications, including synthetic hormones and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may contribute to the development of leg swelling. Diets high in sodium and a lack of physical movement, such as sitting excessively, may adversely impact capillary function leading to fluid retention. Pregnant women often develop some degree of leg edema during their pregnancy that generally subsides following delivery. In some cases, the onset of an acute edema may be indicative of a more serious medical condition, such as compromised renal, heart, or lymphatic function.

During the early stages of leg edema development, a symptomatic individual may notice that his or her legs appear to be shinier than normal or that the skin seems stretched tight. When one remains stationary for very long, he or she may experience stiffness or discomfort in his or her legs upon moving. As an edema progresses, indentations may appear on one’s legs when pressure is applied and remain present for a few moments once pressure is released.

Treatment for leg edema is usually centered on alleviating its underlying cause. For many, dietary and lifestyle changes may be recommended, including limiting one’s sodium and water intake, exercising regularly, and avoiding situations that cause one to remain stationary for very long. In many cases, individuals with leg edema are prescribed a diuretic to promote the flushing of excess fluid from their system. As with many medications, the regular use of diuretics can pose some risk to certain individuals and these should be discussed with a qualified health care provider.

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SarahGen
Post 5

@serenesurface-- I'm not a doctor. You need to see your doctor and get some tests done.

One major cause of chronic leg edema is poor kidney function. Our kidneys are responsible for filtering and removing excess water from our body. If the water is not being removed properly, this may mean that the kidneys are not working well.

But not all causes of leg edema are so serious. A minor issue like tight, uncomfortable shoes can cause leg edema too. So it's best to see your doctor, you shouldn't jump to conclusions by reading the possible causes online.

serenesurface
Post 4

I have been experiencing leg edema frequently lately. I'm not on any medications and I don't stand still or sit still for very long. What might be the cause of the edema?

ddljohn
Post 3

@Reminiscence-- I'm glad you found ways to prevent your leg edema. When one has a stationary job, it's very important to take a break once in a while, walk around a little and stretch. Sitting still not only leads to edema, but it's also very bad for the spine, lower back and neck. This is especially true if posture is bad or if the sitting position is cutting off blood circulation to the legs and feet.

I once got leg edema during a very long, international flight. I actually did not notice it. When I arrived home, my mom saw my ankles as I was taking off my shoes and exclaimed "you're all swollen!" I soaked my feet and legs in hot water with Epsom salt and then I laid down and raised my legs. The edema disappeared after a few hours.

Cageybird
Post 2

I started experience leg edema symptoms when I worked as a machinist years ago. I'd have to stand in the same place on a concrete floor and wait for a machine to push out finished bolts. The edema in one leg was worse than the other one. I thought taking over the counter medications for inflammation would help, but they were actually making it worse. They were NSAIDs.

My doctor told me to stop taking those OTC pills right away, and then he gave me a prescription for a strong diuretic. I also had to wear a special orthotic device in my shoe that gave my feet more cushioning. After a few months, I was much better.

Reminiscence
Post 1

When I first started working at home, I'd spend hours in front of a computer monitor without taking a break. I never got it checked out by a doctor, but I believe I had at least a moderate case of leg edema. The front of my shins looked very shiny, almost like I put lotion on them. I couldn't put weight on my legs right away if I wanted to stand up.

I also had a very bad diet at the time, and I ate a lot of salty foods and sugary soft drinks. Once I cut way back on my salt intake and started taking a walk around the house every hour, the edema in my legs seemed to lessen.

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