What Is Edema and Why Is It Causing My Legs To Swell?

Graphic of character with edema in left leg veins.If you’ve been keeping an eye on your vein health, you’ve probably come across the term “edema” without really knowing what it means. Essentially, edema is a condition characterized by the accumulation of fluid in the legs, which results in noticeable swelling of the tissues. What exactly triggers this build-up of fluid? What signs should you look out for, and most importantly, what can you do to prevent or treat it? Let’s unravel the causes, pinpoint the symptoms, and explore effective strategies to manage and conquer edema.

The Unseen Impact of Edema: Understanding Its Effects on Your Body


Edema can occur anywhere in the body but is most often seen in the lower legs. Several things happen when you have edema. One of the most noticeable is increased blood pressure within the leg veins. This can lead to higher hydrostatic pressure, which pushes fluid out of the veins into the surrounding tissues. 


Low blood protein levels are also linked to edema. Proteins in your blood are key to maintaining oncotic pressure, the force that pulls fluid back into your veins from your tissues. When protein levels drop, this force weakens, resulting in less fluid being absorbed back into the veins and more accumulating in the tissues. This imbalance leads to edema, as excess fluid builds up in the tissues rather than returning to the bloodstream where it belongs. 


Heart health plays a big role in preventing edema. When your heart doesn’t pump well, blood can accumulate in your legs, leading to increased pressure and even venous insufficiency. Edema can also be triggered when the walls of your blood vessels become weak or inflamed. Factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, aging, smoking, or genetic predispositions can contribute to this. 


Blockages in your lymphatic system can also obstruct fluid draining and worsen edema. This system is crucial because it collects fluid that leaks out from the blood vessels into the tissues—like waste products and excess fluid—and returns it to the bloodstream through the lymph nodes. When there are blockages, caused by things like infection, cancer, or the aftermath of surgery, this drainage system is disrupted. As a result, fluid builds up in the tissues because it cannot be efficiently cleared, leading to increased swelling and potentially complicating other medical conditions. 


Consequences and Causes of Chronic Edema


Suffering from edema can make your legs feel tight and heavy, turning everyday tasks into a painful ordeal. Edema can also cause major mobility issues, as the stiffness and weight of swollen limbs can make walking or even slipping on shoes a struggle. As you bear the weight of this swelling with every step, feelings of pressure can intensify your discomfort.


When you have edema, your legs balloon up and your skin gets stretched so thin that it shines and feels sore at the slightest touch. This can open the door to serious health complications such as ulcers, infections, dermatitis, lymphedema, and overall mental distress.


Here are the main causes of edema:

  • Being overweight
  • Aging
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Injury or infection in the legs
  • Standing or sitting for long periods
  • Medications like blood pressure drugs, steroids, and NSAIDs

10 Strategies for Managing Edema


Simple strategies like wearing compression stockings and avoiding extreme temperatures can provide quick relief for your swelling. But to truly address the problem, you need to consider these more in-depth methods.


Control Your Calories


Because excess weight can contribute to the onset of edema, one of the key strategies in preventing edema—particularly edema related to venous insufficiency—is maintaining a healthy weight. To figure this out, you have to get a handle on how many calories you need each day, which depends on your age, gender, weight, height, and activity level. Typically, women require 1,600 to 2,400 calories daily, while men need 2,000 to 3,000. For weight loss, cutting back on your daily calorie intake by 500 to 750 calories is a safe and effective strategy.


Amp up Your Exercise


Getting active is crucial for fighting Edema. The CDC suggests 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, like brisk walking, or if you’re up for it, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity such as running. Don’t forget to squeeze in two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities to further amp up your efforts.


Stretch Your Legs


To ease swelling, make leg elevation part of your daily routine by habitually propping up your legs above heart level using a stack of pillows. It’s a simple move that helps drain away fluid that’s built up from gravity. And don’t forget to take breaks and get moving to maintain a smooth blood flow. If your job consists of long stretches of standing or sitting, sneak in quick walks or change up your position to keep immobility from getting to you.


Drink More Water, Eat Less Salt


Drinking enough water is essential in preventing fluid retention. Aim for at least 4 eight-ounce glasses of water a day, as proper hydration helps flush out excess sodium and other waste products from the body. Excess salt in the diet can cause the body to retain water, leading to swelling. So cutting back on salty snacks and processed foods can decrease sodium intake and help keep edema under control.


Manage Chronic Conditions


Edema isn’t just a nuisance. It can signal serious underlying health issues like heart disease, kidney problems, or diabetes. By actively managing these conditions through a balanced diet, regular check-ins with your doctor, and medication when necessary, you can slash that swelling down to size. 


Graphic of two characters discussing if varicose veins cause edemaGet your Veins Treated


Treating edema often involves tackling underlying issues like varicose veins, and consulting a vein specialist is key for those with edema caused by them. These specialists can pinpoint the most effective treatments to combat both the visible signs of varicose veins and the frustrating swelling. They often recommend minimally invasive procedures like sclerotherapy or laser treatments, which directly target the troublesome veins, giving your circulation a boost and saying goodbye to that swelling. 


Spotting Edema Early: A Strategy for Better Health Outcomes


Recognizing edema early could be your frontline defense against a cascade of health issues. Not only does early detection reveal what’s really going on inside, but it also sets the stage for swift and effective treatment, potentially sparing you from a world of hurt. If you have an existing case of edema, there’s still plenty you can do to fight back and reclaim your comfort. From simple lifestyle tweaks to targeted medical help, the options are vast. And if you’re dealing with the added challenge of varicose veins, a vein specialist has your back, ready to offer personalized strategies to get you feeling your best again.

At Delaware Advanced Vein Center, our expert medical staff has years of experience treating people with venous conditions such as varicose veins, spider veins, and more. Our dedicated team specializes in providing attentive and personalized care, something larger clinics often overlook. We welcome you to our family of satisfied patients.

Contact us today to schedule a FREE virtual consultation and vein evaluation.