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Managing Edema in the Elderly: Swollen Legs, Ankles & Feet

Swollen legs, ankles and feet are a common complaint for aging adults. Also called edema, this condition may be harmless, but it can also be the sign of an underlying health issue. For this reason, it’s important that you don’t ignore edema symptoms. Let’s go over common causes of edema, as well as tips for managing it better.

Typical symptoms of edema

Edema is best characterized by swollen legs, ankles and feet. However, it can also include symptoms such as:

  • Swollen or puffy skin
  • Skin that appears stretched, shiny or discolored
  • Stiff joints and body parts
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Changes in weight
  • Skin that keeps a dimple after being pressed
  • Sudden changes in mental state

If you noticed any of these edema symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.

How edema occurs in the body

Edema is the result of fluid accumulating in soft tissues around the ankles. This can happen for a few different reasons. Sometimes blood vessels “leak” fluids or become overloaded by fluids, causing tissues to swell. 

In addition, low protein levels in the blood can make it harder for the body to maintain fluid within blood vessels. Low levels of the protein albumin in particular are often the sign of chronic conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease or simply malnutrition.

Types of edema

Edema can affect different parts of the body. The most common type is called peripheral edema, which affects the extremities such as legs, ankles and feet. Sometimes this can also occur in the hands and arms.  

However, there are a few other types of edema. Generalized edema involves excess fluid retention throughout the body. Edema may also be specific to an organ or system experiencing the accumulation of fluids. For example, pulmonary edema is the type of fluid retention that affects the lungs. 

Conditions that cause swollen legs and ankles

Edema is common in aging patients due to a variety of chronic conditions, including:

  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Blood clots
  • Tumors
  • Arthritis
  • … and other underlying conditions

Edema can also occur after a health event such as an injury, surgery, allergic reaction or more. It’s also a common side effect of taking certain medications, especially for diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

In addition, edema may also result from poor health habits such as:

  • Physical inactivity (sitting or standing in one position)
  • Eating a diet high in salt
  • Experiencing sustained heat or high altitudes

Why it’s important to manage edema

While edema is often a harmless condition, it’s important to take it seriously. Edema may be the sign of an underlying chronic condition, or lead to greater mobility issues. It may even increase the risk of falling

Complications of edema can lead to painful swelling, itchy skin, difficulty walking and general discomfort. In addition, more serious complications can occur, including a risk of infection or skin ulcers. Overall, edema also decreases blood circulation, which can impact chronic conditions such as heart disease, too. 

When edema should be medically evaluated

If you see symptoms of edema, don’t ignore it. Schedule an appointment with your primary physician. You should seek more urgent medical attention if you notice signs such as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling only on one side 
  • Pain

During an evaluation, your doctor will examine the swollen area and other key areas such as the heart, lungs and more. To determine the underlying cause of edema, the physician may order tests to check kidney function, thyroid function, liver function, varicose veins, blood clots infections and more. He/she might also check for the protein albumin.

Tips for managing swollen legs and ankles

If your or a loved one is experiencing edema, you can manage it in a few ways. Some health habits can help minimize symptoms, such as:

1. Opt for low-sodium meals

Salt can increase fluid retention in the body and make swelling worse. You can better manage edema by preparing low-sodium meals. In turn, a low-sodium diet is good for your heart and overall health. Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, try seasoning your meals with herbs, condiments and fresh lemon.

2. Stay physically active 

Edema often gets worse with inactivity. It’s important to get moving in order to promote blood circulation and reduce fluid build-up. Even a short walk or breaks from sitting down can help with symptoms. 

3. Use proper skin hygiene

Edema can impact skin hygiene, as it may become puffy, stretched or discolored. It’s important to keep skin clean and dry to avoid infection and ensure skin recovery. 

4. Wear compression socks

A compression sock adds pressure to the swollen area and promotes circulation so that fluid doesn’t build up. Usually these socks are inexpensive and can help reduce edema symptoms. Before trying a compression sock, you should ask your doctor about different compression levels and what would be most appropriate for your situation. 

5. Exercise and elevate the legs

To prevent fluid retention, you can try elevating the legs a few times a day at the heart level for about 30 minutes. This is a simple solution for keeping swelling down. In addition, you can do specific calf exercises to keep your legs moving during the day, such as ankle pumps.

6. Try massage therapy

Finally, massage may help relieve edema symptoms. All massage therapy should be coordinated by your doctor, as seniors with risk for blood clots shouldn’t undergo massage therapy. For the right individual, massage can help circulate fluids and reduce swelling. 

FAQs about swollen legs and ankles

Are swollen legs and ankles dangerous?

Swollen legs and ankles may be the sign of an underlying health condition. When coupled with difficulty breathing, swelling only on one side and pain, it’s especially urgent to seek medical attention. While swollen legs and ankles may be harmless, it’s best to stay cautious and get evaluated to understand the cause behind it. 

What medications cause swollen legs and ankles?

Certain medications may cause swollen legs and ankles in seniors. For example, medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s may cause edema as a side effect. In addition, other medications may make edema worse, such as antihypertensive drugs, hormone-based drugs, painkillers and more.

What foods cause swollen legs and ankles?

Salt can make swelling in the legs and ankles worse. That’s why a low-sodium diet is an essential part of managing symptoms. Instead, opt for foods high in B-vitamins, iron, potassium and antioxidants. Some options include whole gains, dark leafy greens, berries and other fruits and vegetables. 

Final takeaway

Now that you understand edema better, you can seek medical evaluation and start managing symptoms. By making a few key changes to your daily routine, you can reduce symptoms and boost your mobility in the long run. 

Don’t forget that you can get more senior resources on My Caring Plan, too. From no-slip socks to housing programs, we’re committed to supporting your care as you age. 

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