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Why do my legs swell and how can I make it go away?

By Anne-Marie Blais RN, NWSOC

Do you often have swollen, achy and heavy legs?  Sometimes or especially in the warm weather? All the time? What is it and why does this happen?  When fluid pools in the tissue under your skin it is called edema.  There are a lot of different reasons why edema happens and it can occur anywhere in the body. This blog explores leg swelling and one of the most common reasons for it: venous insufficiency.   

A bit of science to explain what’s happening inside your legs.  

Nutrient-rich oxygenated blood is carried from your heart and lungs to your legs and feet by the arteries.  Once the oxygen is absorbed, veins bring the now unoxygenated blood back to the heart to repeat the cycle. How do veins fight the pull of gravity, you may ask? The veins of the legs are equipped with valves that prevent the back flow of blood back down to the feet. Also, the calf muscles acts as “anti-gravity” pumps to keep the blood moving upwards. If those valves or calf muscles fail, upward flow of the blood becomes impaired. The result: blood pooling in the veins of the legs, causing them to bulge and loose their tone.   This causes some of the fluid and molecules from the blood to seep out of the venous system into the tissue causing swelling.  Over time the swelling doesn’t go away without help. This swelling is known as chronic edema.  

Let’s take a quick look at why your veins may ‘give out’:

  • Pregnancy: causes fluid retention and the growing belly causes pressure on the veins in the pelvis slowing down circulation. This happens when someone is obese too.
  • Loss of calf muscle strength for someone who is paralyzed or is too sedentary.
  • Occupation: nurses, cashiers, police, hairstylists—anyone who’s job requires them to stand or sit for long periods at a time. Besides not working the calf muscles, the veins have to work harder against gravity.
  • History of a blood clot or trauma to the leg. Either of these can cause direct damage to the veins and their valves.
  • Chronic conditions such as heart failure, kidney or liver disease or lymphedema can cause the body to retain more fluid

Once chronic edema has set it, there is no cure: damaged veins simply can’t be repaired. When left untreated, chronic edema can cause discomfort, oozing of fluid, infections and difficult to heal wounds What can be done to reduce the symptoms of chronic edema? Calf muscle exercises, such as walking, are a good start. Intermittently lifting legs up throughout the day using a recliner chair can help. Managing your weight if at all possible. In severe cases, surgery can be done to remove diseased veins.

Compression Therapy – The ‘Gold Standard’

In addition to a healthy lifestyle, compression therapy has been scientifically proven to control chronic edema.  In fact—it is considered the ‘gold standard’ for managing edema. Compression therapy involves wearing a medical compression stockings or adjustable wraps or bandages to keep fluid in the veins and help the incompetent veins move blood upwards. 

If you have chronic edema, consult with your health care professional to determine what type of compression therapy is most appropriate for you.  A variety of compression options are available and depending on your situation, your healthcare professional may be recommending more over the course of time.  Appropriate compression therapy, worn daily, helps reduce the achy and heavy feeling you get in your legs at the end of a long day.  Edema wear® is a safe, inexpensive and latex-free product that provides a low level of compression. It is easy to apply and one pair can last 4-6 months.  Speak to your healthcare professional to see if this is a good product for you.  And remember:  A variety of health conditions can cause edema, some more serious than others. Always see your healthcare professional if you think you have edema before beginning any treatment! 

Anne-Marie Blais

Anne-Marie Blais

Anne-Marie Blais is an RN specializing in wound ostomy & continence (NSWOC) with a passion for sharing knowledge. She has over 10 years of experience in home care, hospital nursing and teaching.
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