Peripheral Edema – Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Edema describes swelling that occurs when small blood vessels leak excess fluid into nearby tissues. This build up of fluid causes tissue under the skin to swell. As a result, the skin looks puffy, stretched, or shiny. 

Peripheral edema is a type of swelling that occurs in a person’s lower body. In most cases, it affects the legs, ankles, and feet. However, it can also occur in the arms too. Like other types of edema, it comes from a build up of excess fluid. Moreover, swelling depends largely on gravity. It can increase or decrease based on the position of the body.

Thankfully, it is usually a mild condition that resolves itself or the discomfort can be treated with medical socks called diabetes socks. Diabetic socks have loose tops that does not constrict blood flow and helps against swelling.

An example of a less severe case is edema arising from an increased salt intake. Another mild cause is sitting in one position for too long. On the other hand, it can be a symptom of a larger medical issue. This condition can affect the circulatory system, kidneys, and lymph nodes. Therefore, it is important to see the doctor if your symptoms have not improved. 

Peripheral Edema Symptoms

One of the most common signs with this condition is the display of swelling or puffiness surrounding the affected tissue. Some people describe the swelling as feeling tight or warm, but generally this is not a cause for concern. 

In addition, other signs include pitting, heaviness in the affected area, weight gain, and difficulty wearing socks or shoes. 

  • Pitting: Using your finger tip, apply pressure to the swollen area for around five seconds. If there is an indent from your finger after removing pressure, this is known as pitting.
  • Heaviness: Depending how severe the swelling is, you may notice a heavy feeling in the arms or legs. This could impact your ability to walk or perform daily tasks from a lack of strength or pain. 
  • Weight gain: You may notice some weight gain from the fluid retention. Your weight should decrease once the condition improves.
  • Tough to put on shoes or socks: Swollen feet can force you to change your clothing choices. You should avoid tight clothes until the swelling goes down.

Major Causes of Peripheral Edema

There are a variety of causes behind peripheral edema ranging from minor to more severe. Minor causes are usually temporary and will correct themselves over time. Making easy changes to your daily life will also fix these issues. Other causes are systematic, meaning there is an another health condition. If you are not sure of the cause, it is worth seeing your doctor to rule out other health concerns. 

Minor Causes of Peripheral Edema

allergies can be a cause

Minor causes are temporary. In fact, they may heal themselves over time. Another option is to make changes to your diet or daily living. 

  • Standing/sitting too long: Sitting or standing too long can be harmful and can cause peripheral edema.
  • Pregnancy: This condition is common during pregnancy as a woman’s body will retain more fluid for the developing fetus. Like gestational diabetes, this usually goes away after giving birth. 
  • Hormone changes: Changes in hormones can cause swelling in the legs.
  • Salt Intake: An increase in sodium in the body is another minor cause to look out for.
  • Medication: Changes in your medication is another potential trigger for this condition.
  • Allergic reaction: It is not as common to swell in the legs and arms during an allergic reaction. However, it does happen. If swelling occurs suddenly, seek medical help. 
  • Obesity: Excess weight affects your health in many ways, including putting pressure on the veins causing edema. 
  • Low altitude: Did you know that the elevation can have an impact on your body in a number of ways? Higher altitudes can make it more difficult to breathe in oxygen from the air. On the other hand, a lower one can cause swelling and other signs of edema.
  • Tight clothing: Wearing clothes that are too tight will reduce your blood flow. This can cause certain parts of your body to become swollen.

Systematic Causes of Peripheral Edema

Unlike minor causes, systematic causes are the result of an underlying condition and may require other medical treatments. 

  • Venous insufficiency: This is a condition where leg veins struggle to send blood back to the heart. This causes blood flow issues as it pools in the lower leg. 
  • Inflammation: Inflammation is a normal immune response, especially when dealing with a chronic health condition. It causes body parts to swell including the legs or arms. 
  • Deep vein thrombosis: This is a condition when a blood clot forms in the veins. In some cases, DVT requires medical care. Signs of this condition include sudden swelling of one leg. 
  • Cancer: Some forms of cancer and chemotherapy can cause peripheral edema. 
  • Heart failure: In this case, the heart is too weak to pump blood. Instead, the blood gathers in front of the heart. Consequently, this puts pressure on the veins causing fluid to leak into surrounding tissues. 
  • Pericarditis: This is the swelling of the membrane surrounding the heart. This causes swelling and pain in the feet, ankles, and legs. 
  • Preeclampsia: This is a complication that can occur during pregnancy. People with this condition have high blood pressure and signs of damage of an organ system. Peripheral edema is one of the symptoms of this complication. 
  • Cirrhosis: This condition affects liver function and results from long-term damage to the liver. People suffering from cirrhosis can develop swelling in the lower legs.
  • Renal failure: Renal failure occurs when a person’s kidneys are unable to effectively filter waste from their blood. This causes high levels of waste to build up in the body. 
  • Pulmonary hypertension: This is a form of blood pressure affecting arteries in the lungs. Also, this affects how blood travels back to the heart. Swelling in the legs is a common sign of this condition. 
  • Lymphedema is swelling in the arms or legs. Blockage in the lymphatic system that is part of the immune system is to blame.
  • Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection that causes swelling, pain, and redness. 
  • Malnutrition occurs when a person’s diet lacks proper nutrients for optimal health. Malnutrition can lead to low protein levels in the blood, causing peripheral edema.
  • Sleep apnea: This is a serious sleeping disorder when a person’s breathing stops and starts again. Most importantly, when sleep apnea is severe, leg swelling can occur. 

Peripheral Edema Treatments

For instance, in mild cases, try lifting your legs up with a pillow so they are higher than your heart. This should increase blood flow to the legs and help manage most symptoms. Other treatments include movement, diabetes socks, compression socks, massage, and reducing salt intake. 

Diabetic socks: Diabetes socks have relaxed tops that reduce binding that comes from swelling. These socks are also suited for those with nerve damage.They also feature plush bottoms and a breathable mesh. As a result, not only are they more comfortable, but they also increase blood flow in the legs. These socks come in various lengths including crew and knee. Those who prefer a shorter ones can opt for diabetes ankle socks. Read this in-depth guide to learn more about these socks.

Compression socks are advisable after swelling has gone down. These are knee length socks. They work by applying pressure to the affected area to stop fluid from collecting in the legs. There are many different types of socks on the market. Know the differences between compression socks vs diabetic socks.

Keep swelling down with compression socks

Massage: Applying firm pressure to the affected area can help remove excess fluid. It also helps improve poor circulation in the legs.

Movement: Exercises that target the legs can be helpful for decreasing swelling and providing relief to the affected area. 

Reduce salt intake: Salt causes the body to retain water, which can worsen this condition. However, before reducing salt in your diet, seek advice from a doctor. Also, read about the 10 best foods for people with diabetes. It can help anyone improve their diet.

Eating less salt helps decrease swelling.

Take Away

In some cases, the heaviness and swelling associated with this condition can cause painful feet and legs or interfere with normal activities. If this sounds like you, you should rest and try the above treatments to manage your symptoms. 

For severe cases, your doctor might prescribe medication to help your body remove excess fluid through urination. 

When Should You Visit the Doctor and What To Expect

Peripheral edema typically resolves itself after a few days without medical intervention. If you experience sudden pain or severe swelling, you should see your doctor to rule out serious medical concerns. 

When making an appointment, make note of any restrictions that could affect testing. This includes fasting before blood work. Above all, your doctor will want to know your symptoms. For example, include details such as the severity and duration. Additionally, brush up on your medical history including any medicines and supplements you are taking, and current medical conditions. 

Your doctor will ask a variety of questions:

  • How long have you noticed symptoms?
  • Is the swelling only in your legs? 
  • Have you had a form of edema before?
  • Does swelling go down after elevating your legs? 
  • Does anything make the swelling better or worse? 

Prepare to answer questions like these will help your doctor make a diagnosis.

Also, your doctor will perform a physical exam, potentially followed by further testing such as ultrasound, blood tests, and x-rays. 

Treatments depends on the underlying cause. For minor cases, symptoms will resolve on their own or by making changes to your lifestyle. If the cause is systematic, your doctor will prescribe a treatment suitable for the condition. Luckily, you can manage most of these symptoms at home. 

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