by Caitlin Reid
Edema means swelling, and it often occurs when fluid has accumulated in your body’s tissues. While swelling in your ankle is common after an ankle sprain, there can be more serious causes of swelling in your lower leg. If you notice your leg has become swollen, here are a few things you need to know, as well as steps you can take to protect your health. And let’s just get it out of the way upfront: if you notice something out of the ordinary happening in your body, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
What Are the Signs of Edema?
The earlier you notice the signs of edema, the better, so it’s handy to know what to look for. Experts from the NHS English health service describe a few common things you may notice that indicate you may have edema:
- Your arm or leg starts to feel heavy.
- Your arm or leg looks swollen or puffy.
- When you press your fingertips into the swelling, it leaves a dent (known as pitting edema).
- Your rings, bracelets or anklets start to feel tighter than normal.
- The skin on your arm or leg looks shiny and feels tight and warm.
- Movement of the joints in your arm or leg feels stiff.
- You feel a sensation of tautness or even pain in the surrounding area.
Common Causes of Lower Leg Edema
The NHS outlines edema in your legs can be related to a number of causes, ranging from non-serious all the way to more immediate medical issues.
According to the NHS, common non-serious causes of lower leg edema include:
- Being in the same position for too long, such as standing or sitting
- Eating too much salty food
- Being overweight, particularly being obese
- Pregnancy, which often causes swollen fingers and ankles
- Certain medications (such as for blood pressure)
- An injury such as a sprained ankle
- An insect bite or sting
The NHS explains more, serious causes of lower leg edema include:
- A blood clot, including deep vein thrombosis
- , such as congestive heart failure
- Liver or kidney disease
- A condition called chronic venous insufficiency
- An infection
Despite serious causes, experts from the National Health Service say there are a number of very common reasons you may have noticed an excess volume of fluid in your lower legs. These professionals cite a few things you can do to help manage the swelling on your own at home. Within the first few days, health professionals recommend you:
- Wear gentle compression socks or stockings.
- Lie down and elevate the swollen leg with pillows. This helps the fluid drain back to your heart.
- Try gentle exercise, such as walking, to boost the blood flow in your body. This can be particularly useful if you notice very mild swelling after flying, which is normal for you.
- Wear comfortable shoes that don’t press on the swelling.
- Wash, dry and moisturize your legs and feet to help avoid skin infections.
The NHS says to also avoid:
- Sitting or standing for long periods.
- Wearing clothing that is too tight and will inhibit fluid flow.
The Best Compression Socks for Swelling to Help Manage Lower Leg Edema
Compression socks and stockings with 15-20 mmHg of compression have been found to be a fantastic way to manage edema if you’ve just started to notice swelling in your lower leg and you already know the cause. Great brands have created moisture-wicking compression socks out of innovative fabrics with fun designs to make managing the swelling easy. Thanks to their modern design, you can wear them as part of your normal wardrobe, which is particularly useful if you notice swelling from sitting at work or if you want to minimize swelling and your risk of DVT when you travel.
If you have a chronic illness that predisposes you to edema, such as diabetes or chronic venous insufficiency, your doctor may recommend medical-grade compression socks to help you manage your edema. These socks start at 20 mmHg, and studies show they can be an effective way to manage symptoms related to some chronic illnesses. One report states: “Compression therapy remains the cornerstone of management for patients with chronic venous insufficiency.”
When to See Your Doctor for Lower Leg Edema
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms below, the National Health Service urges you to seek medical attention as soon as possible. These symptoms include:
- Your swelling hasn’t resolved after two days.
- The swelling is only on one side and there’s no obvious cause or injury (e.g., no ankle sprain).
- Your swelling started very suddenly and is severe and very sore.
- You have a fever and chills.
- You have diabetes.
If you’re seeing a new doctor who doesn’t know your medical history, make sure you tell them if you have traveled recently, had any recent surgery or have any heart conditions, and point out any skin changes on the affected limb. This will help them decide which tests to order to find the cause of your swelling.
If you have chronic or persistent edema, research suggests it’s very important to continue to seek medical attention until the cause is identified. Chronic edema is progressive and can lead to everything from infection to disability. Outcomes are far better when the underlying disease is identified in its early stages, so persist with your doctor since early intervention is best.
When to Seek Urgent Medical Attention for Leg Edema
The NHS points to a number of symptoms that indicate an acute medical emergency: If you notice swelling in your leg and you feel short of breath, your chest feels tight or painful and you’re struggling to breathe, the NHS encourages you to call an ambulance. You may have a blood clot that has traveled from the deep veins in your calf to your lungs (DVT). Call for urgent medical attention straight away.
While lower leg edema can be common from non-serious causes, it’s handy to know the signs that may indicate a more serious condition. From compression socks to medical management, medical authorities point to a number of things you can do to treat your lower leg edema.
Caitlin Reid is a freelance journalist, copywriter and PR coordinator with over 10 years of experience with clients around the world. She is also a physiotherapist with a special interest in holistic and environmental well-being, blending the realms of evidence-based medicine with inspiring holistic health.