Have you ever had a sprain or a bee sting that swells up like a balloon? The swelling is called edema, a normal response to injury and inflammation. In the case of a sprain, it helps to rest, apply ice, use compression and elevate the injury. For a bee sting, remove the stinger, wash with soap and water and apply cold compresses or ice (unless you are allergic to bee stings, in which case, use your EpiPen and seek medical treatment).
What about edema that appears without known injury?
Besides being caused by injury, edema can be caused by disease, genetic conditions, medication, an allergic reaction, pregnancy, weakening of the valves in your veins, staying in one position for too long and too much salty food.
Congestive heart failure causes edema when the heart pumps blood less efficiently and fluid “backs up” in your legs. Liver disease can cause edema in your abdomen and legs because your body is not producing enough of the proteins that help keep fluid in blood vessels where it belongs. Kidney disease causes edema in your legs and sometimes your whole body. Blood clots and tumors can block the normal flow of fluids anywhere in your body and cause localized edema. Each of these conditions requires special medical evaluation and treatment.
Newborn girls with swollen hands and feet may have a genetic condition called Turner syndrome. Although Turner syndrome is a lifelong condition, detection at birth allows individuals to be monitored for heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney problems and treated early if they are detected.
Mild edema caused by medications may only require elevating the swollen area, but more severe edema caused by medication may need a change in dose or type of medication.
Mild leg swelling is often experienced during pregnancy and is not serious, but more severe leg swelling can be a sign of the potentially life-threatening conditions of preeclampsia or deep vein thrombosis and requires medical intervention.
Lymphedema is a type of swelling that is common in legs or arms after any injury, when you have an infection or after surgery that damages lymph node drainage. Women like me who have had mastectomy surgery with lymph nodes removed can be at higher risk for lymphedema for a number of years afterward. Avoiding injury, infection, bug bites, or other damage to the affected arm or leg reduces the risk of lymphedema. Treatment and prevention usually include compression stockings and physical therapy.
Leg swelling caused by weakened valves in the veins may be improved by elevating your legs or using compression stockings, but it may also need to be treated with medications.
Because eating too much salty food and sitting or standing for too long can sometimes worsen edema, I recommend to people who have edema to avoid salty foods and move around more when possible.
Causes and treatments for edema are numerous. Mild edema is usually treated with elevation, a dietary change or exercise, but some causes require medical intervention.
New edema should always be treated seriously. You should work with your health care provider to find its root cause. Untreated swelling can worsen with time. It may be curable but even if it is not, appropriate treatment to manage the cause can improve your quality of life and may help you live longer.