Help! My Legs Are Swollen, Should I Drink Less Water?

Have you ever glanced down at your feet and ankles? Only to question whether they truly belong to you due to unexpected swelling. It’s common that legs are swollen. They usually stem from prolonged periods on your feet, extended travel, recent surgery, or even pregnancy.

And if you’ve ever dedicated an evening to lounging on the sofa with your favourite show and a bag of crunchy snacks, then you’ve likely experienced that familiar sensation.

In some instances, you awaken feeling bloated and noticeably heavier. Your once-loose ring now constricts your finger, and what used to be ankles have transformed into cankles. As you press on the swollen areas, odd temporary dimples emerge.

Fortunately, there are methods to alleviate swelling caused by everyday factors — and sometimes, you can proactively stave it off. So, take a brief pause, elevate your swollen legs, and delve into this post to understand all there is to know about edema and lymphedema.

Why Do Legs Get Swollen?

Swollen legs aren’t a rare occurrence. Anyone can experience the condition, with a higher likelihood in pregnant individuals and adults aged 65 and above. For some, it’s a chronic condition, whereas for others, it’s acute. The potential contributors to swollen feet and ankles encompass various factors:

  • Lifestyle Influences: Inactivity or being overweight can contribute to swelling. Gravity plays a crucial role here. If you sit or stand in one place for prolonged periods, water naturally ends up in your arms, legs, and feet.
  • Medical Conditions: Diseases affecting fluid dynamics in the body, such as those impacting the heart and kidneys may lead to edema. Additionally, when you have weak vein valves, pushing blood back into your heart is a challenge, leading to varicose veins and fluid buildup.
  • Pregnancy: Swelling is a common occurrence during pregnancy. The uterus exerts pressure on blood vessels situated at the body’s lower trunk, causing swelling in the legs.
  • Ill-Fitting Footwear: Wearing shoes that do not fit properly can contribute to swelling.
  • Injuries: Trauma or injuries can induce localised or generalised swelling.

What Is Edema?

Edema, colloquially known as swelling, manifests when your body retains excess fluid in the lower regions of your legs, ankles, and feet. Typically, this occurs bilaterally, affecting both sides of your body and resulting in discomfort that hinders free movement.

Edema is triggered by conditions such as venous insufficiency, cardiac issues, kidney failure, or various inflammatory processes. It occurs when fluid leaks from small blood vessels into adjacent tissues, causing an accumulation of excess fluid that leads to tissue swelling. This phenomenon can occur throughout the body, affecting various regions.

If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, you might be suffering from edema and should visit the doctor to address if it’s caused by any medical issues:

  • Enlargement of a body area compared to the previous day
  • Skin covering the swollen region appears stretched and glossy
  • Impaired walking ability in the presence of swelling in the legs, ankles, or feet
  • Sudden respiratory difficulty
  • Sensation of fullness or tightness in the swollen body part
  • Mild pain or soreness in the affected swollen area

The Edema Grading

So, how advanced is your condition? Healthcare providers use a scale to determine the severity of your edema diagnosis. Using an edema grading, doctors can estimate how much fluid has built up in the tissues.

Essentially, the test involves a healthcare practitioner pressing gently on a swollen area (with their fingers) for 5 to 15 seconds. This is called the pitting test. Once they release pressure, a dimple (or a pit) shows up, indicating fluid buildup in tissues. Then, they measure the time it takes for the pit to rebound.

The edema grading scale goes from 1 to 4, with 1 being of lowest severity.

  • Grade 1: Swift rebound, with a 2 mm pit.
  • Grade 2: Rebound in less than 15 seconds for a 3 to 4 mm pit.
  • Grade 3: Rebound surpassing 15 seconds but less than 60 seconds for a 5 to 6 mm pit.
  • Grade 4: Rebound spanning 2 to 3 minutes for an 8 mm pit.

What Is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic system gathers lymph, which comprises excess fluid, proteins, and various substances, from body tissues and transports them back into the bloodstream. Lymph traverses lymphatic vessels at a deliberate pace, passing through lymph nodes.

Edema due to the lymphatic system is called lymphedema. This can occur when lymph accumulates in body tissues, and the natural drainage of fluid is impeded by an obstruction or damage to lymph nodes in the armpit or groin areas. Symptoms of lymphedema may range from mild, resulting in minor swelling and discomfort, to more severe instances where significant swelling is accompanied by pain and skin issues, such as infections and wounds.

While lymphedema can be hereditary, it is more frequently a consequence of blockages caused by factors like infection, cancer, or scar tissue arising from radiation therapy or the surgical removal of lymph nodes. In some cases, lymphedema may manifest spontaneously, without a discernible cause. Although healthcare providers cannot cure lymphedema, they can alleviate its symptoms. Moreover, there are numerous measures you can take to minimise the impact of lymphedema on your quality of life.

Primary and Secondary Lymphedema

Lymphedema can be a serious medical condition because it puts you at risk of developing infections, which may be life-threatening. In rare situations, lymphedema leads to lymphangiosarcoma, a type of skin cancer. There are two types of lymphedema, primary and secondary.

Primary lymphedema stems from uncommon, genetically inherited conditions that impact the development of your lymphatic system. It occurs in approximately 1 in 100,000 individuals in the U.S. The onset of lymphedema due to these conditions can manifest during infancy, puberty, pregnancy, and after the age of 35.

On the other hand, secondary lymphedema may occur when your lymphatic system undergoes damage from procedures like surgery, trauma, or radiation therapy. This type of lymphedema is particularly prevalent among individuals who have undergone cancer treatment, especially if they have had lymph nodes removed. However, it’s important to note that not everyone undergoing cancer treatment will experience lymphedema.

The 4 Stages of Lymphedema

Just like edema, healthcare providers utilise a staging system to grade the seriousness of the condition. Your lymphedema diagnosis may fall into one of the following categories:

  • Stage 0: The afflicted area might exhibit sensations of swelling, tightness, and heaviness, yet without apparent external signs of swelling.
  • Stage I: Occasional swelling may be present, alleviating when the affected area is elevated.
  • Stage II: The affected region is consistently swollen, and the skin in that area may feel firmer compared to the surrounding tissue.
  • Stage III: Significant swelling characterises the affected area, accompanied by observable changes in the skin, including alterations in colour and texture.

Alleviating the Discomfort of Swollen Legs: Solutions and Recommendations

When addressing swelling, the focus is on management and navigating through the day. While there may not be a definitive cure, there are steps you can take to alleviate pain and discomfort. And to be clear, none of the treatments involve drinking less water. 

Frequently recommended treatments include elevation, exercise, manual lymphatic drainage massage, compression garments, and multilayer bandaging. Lifestyle changes related to posture and diet may also help. If nonsurgical treatments aren’t effective in alleviating symptoms, healthcare providers may recommend surgery for severe cases of lymphedema.

Lifeweavers is dedicated to addressing the unique needs of individuals with lymphedema, offering comprehensive and personalised solutions. If you or someone you know is seeking reliable and specialised care for lymphedema, get in touch with us today.

We are open to direct referral to our therapy services and are happy to discuss your cases. An