What is Edema?

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Edema is a medical term for swelling, or inflammation, in the body. Edema occurs when bodily tissues become engorged with fluids leaked from nearby blood vessels. This produces an abnormal accumulation of fluid under the skin, which can affect the entire body or just a body part. As a result, there are multiple classifications for edema based on how and where it manifests. While edema can show up in the lungs, lymph nodes, brain, or eyes, we’ll focus on swelling of the foot and ankle.

Edema in Podiatry

Swelling caused by injury – If you’ve ever twisted an ankle, dropped a weight on your foot, or even had bug bite or severe skin infection, you’ve experienced edema. When any part of the body swells, it is purposefully flooding fluid and white blood cells into the injured area to aid in healing. While the pain and swelling may feel like an annoyance to the injured individual, it’s actually a clever way for the body to “discourage” further use – and potential damage – to the injured area.

Peripheral edema is commonly seen in our podiatry practice. This type refers to the swelling in the extremities: feet, ankles, hands and arms. This type is usually associated with an underlying medical condition, such as lymph node or kidney problems, or those related to poor blood circulation. There is generally a systemic cause at work.

Pedal edema also strikes the feet and ankles. However, its more often seen in older individuals and in pregnant women. Pregnancy symptoms are usually mild in nature. However, during pregnancy, the body produces hormones that encourage fluid retention. Women also retain more sodium and water than usual during this period, leading to increased swelling all over the body: face, hands, lower limbs, and feet. When these fluids begin to accumulate in the feet and ankles, it can cause great discomfort and loss of sensation. It’s not uncommon for mobility to be affected.

In any of these examples, if the swelling is severe, even the legs can become very swollen, adding weight and making them feel heavy. This type of problem is exacerbated in individuals with excess body weight.

Additionally, when one is sitting or standing for long periods of time, muscles become inactive. These inactive muscles fail to pump blood back towards to the heart from the lower limbs, leading to fluid retention and swelling.

Finally, there are medications that reduce blood circulation by thickening the blood. Such medication can eventually lead to lower limb swelling. Steroids, certain anti-depressants, and anti-inflammatory drugs are in this category of medications.

Edema can also result from weakened or damaged veins in the leg. Chronic Venous insufficiency allows blood to pool in the veins in the leg thereby causing swelling. Sudden swelling in your leg accompanied by pain in your calf muscle can signal a blood clot, or deep vein thrombosis, in one of the veins in the leg. Consult your Podiatrist if this happens.

Symptoms of Edema

Generally, the symptoms are dependent on the root cause and develop gradually. A general sign is the swelling or puffiness of tissue beneath the skin, especially in legs and arms. Puffiness of the ankle, aching body parts and stiff joints are all symptoms of edema.

Others symptoms include stretched or shiny skin. If you apply pressure to the skin and it maintains an indented appearance for more than a few seconds, you are looking at “pitting” edema. In “non-pitting” edema, the skin returns to normal quickly.

Treating Edema

The most effective way of treating edema is to identify and treat the underlying cause. In the case of injury, the RICE method is typically effective at reducing pain and alleviating swelling. RICE is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate. If it is safe for you to do so, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen, are helpful in reducing inflammation.

Other cases: Some cases of edema are used by allergic reactions. In these cases, allergy medication can combat the reaction and reduce swelling rapidly. If the swelling is caused by a blood clot, blood thinners are usually prescribed. These break down the clot and get drainage back to a normal threshold.

Because of the correlation between greater health and overall well-being, we can also reduce the incidence or severity of swelling through healthier habits and lifestyle: 

  • Proper hydration
  • Lower sodium intake
  • Healthy weight management
  • Increased physical activity/exercise
  • Reduce sedentary periods by standing and walking
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol consumption
  • Massage therapy

Self-diagnosis can sometimes be counterproductive, so consult your physician or podiatrist if there are symptoms you do not understand.

We know that swelling sometimes feels like something that “comes with the territory,” either because of our age, occupation, activity levels, or for other reasons. As you’ve learned in this article, though, there are treatments and tweaks we can make to reduce the symptoms and even address the root cause. Call (713) 541-3199 to schedule an appointment with Houston podiatrist Gabriel Maislos, DPM, FACFAS. We accept most major medical insurance, and have a great deal of experience treating all types of foot and ankle edema.

Call (713) 541-3199 if you experience:

  • difficulty standing or walking
  • trauma or twist/sprain injury
  • pregnancy foot pain



Houston Foot and Ankle