How TCM Can Help with Oedema Treatment

Oedema causes vary from person to person. Explore the Western and TCM perspectives on oedema and ways to treat it.

Pregnant woman rubbing her swollen legs on bed.

Have you ever suffered from oedema or swelling in your body due to excess fluid trapped in the body tissues? Although it can affect any part of your body, you’re more likely to notice it in your hands, arms, feet, ankles and legs.

There are many causes of oedema. Don’t ignore the symptoms and consult a doctor to diagnose the cause of your oedema.

Oedema Causes

Pitting on the skin of leg on pressing.
Formation of a dimple in the skin upon pressing is a sign of oedema.

The cause of oedema may be pregnancy, consumption of certain medications or an underlying disease. Oedema occurs when tiny vessels in the body leak fluid, which accumulates in the tissues. According to Western medicine, heart, kidney and liver diseases can cause oedema by interfering with the fluid distribution and excretion from the body.

However, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shares a different view on what is causing oedema. “The main organs related to the development of oedema are the Lungs, Spleen and Kidneys. The outwards and downwards movement of Lung Qi distributes water to various parts of the body. The Spleen regulates the metabolism, absorption and excretion of water. The Kidneys play an important role in the excretion of water from the body,” explains TCM Physician Ho Li Ying. 

Mild oedema may occur due to sitting in the same position for a long time or eating salty foods. Pregnant women frequently suffer oedema. This may be normal or may also indicate associated complications such as high blood pressure.

At times certain oral medicines produce oedema as a side effect. These include medications for high blood pressure, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, steroids or thiazolidinediones, a type of medication used in diabetes. Should a symptom show, a medical professional should diagnose the cause of the oedema.

Other serious causes of oedema include heart failure, liver cirrhosis and kidney failure. Lymph node damage following cancer surgery and severe, long-term protein deficiency can cause oedema. Physician Ho says, “External factors such as staying in a damp environment for a prolonged period of time or cold weather can also cause an imbalance of the Lungs, Spleen and Kidneys leading to the condition. Other internal factors that play a role in developing oedema are physical weakness, diet, overworking and staying up late.”  

She advises avoiding spicy, irritating, cold and greasy foods as they damage the Spleen and stomach. 

Signs of Oedema 

Oedema may be difficult to detect, especially in overweight people. You can watch out for these signs: 

  • Swelling or puffiness of the tissue directly under your skin. You can try to press your skin and hold the finger pressed for a minute. If you have oedema, you will notice a dimple in the skin at the place.  
  • Stretched or shiny skin 
  • Increase in the size of your abdomen 

See a doctor immediately if you also experience breathlessness, difficulty breathing, or chest pain. Also, contact your doctor directly if oedema develops after sitting for a long time, like on a long flight. In this case, oedema may indicate a blood clot deep in your veins, which can be life-threatening. 

Oedema Treatment

A woman lying in bed with her legs raised straight up and messaging on her phone.
Keeping your legs raised for some time before bed can help relieve oedema.

For any oedema that doesn’t go away or keeps recurring, you must see a doctor and ascertain the cause. If it’s due to a medical condition, you will need to treat it for oedema to be relieved. Mild or benign cases of oedema can be treated at home with these measures. 

Home remedies 

Physician Ho recommends simple home remedies and lifestyle changes to eliminate oedema without taking medicines. “Reduce the pressure on the lower limbs, avoid sitting or standing for a long time, and raise your legs if you must sit for a long time”, she says.

Raising your legs 80 to 90 degrees against the wall for 15 minutes before sleep will also help prevent oedema. Physician Ho also emphasises the importance of not staying up late, having late-night snacks, and over-consuming fluids before bedtime. For many people, oedema causes pain which limits their activities. Even so, try to keep moving throughout the day. Using the muscles in the affected part of the body helps to pump the excess fluid back to the heart, thus reducing oedema.

Gently massaging the affected area towards the heart can also move the excess fluid out of the area. However, don’t massage your calves or leg muscles if you have been sitting for a long time or are at risk of having blood clots in your veins. Your doctor may advise you to wear compression stockings, sleeves or gloves. These keep pressure on the limbs and prevent fluid from collecting in the tissue. 

Additonally, ensure you keep the affected area clean, moisturised and free from injury. Skin that’s dry and cracked is more prone to injuries.

Diet  

Diet plays an important role in the development of oedema. Often, it may develop simply due to an increase in salt consumption. Reducing salt intake itself may be enough to resolve oedema. Besides this, Physician Ho recommends diet or tea therapy to invigorate the Spleen, nourish Lungs and Kidneys and help produce urine. She recommends roasted rice tea (zhi mi cha, 製米茶), Codonopsis red date tea (dang shen hong zhao cha, 党参红枣茶), cordyceps pills (chong cao wan, 蟲草丸), coix seeds (yi yi ren, 薏苡仁) and tangerine peel tea (chen pi cha, 陈皮).  

“Wintermelon (dong gua, 冬瓜), corn silk (yu mi si, 玉米丝), poria mushroom (fu ling, 茯苓), Chinese yam (huai shan, 淮山) , coix seeds (yi yi ren, 薏苡仁), adzuki bean (chi xiao dou, 赤小豆) and fermented black soybeans (dou chi, 豆豉) can be used in soups to invigorate the Spleen, tonify Qi and remove Dampness”, she adds. 

Acupressure 

Acupressure is an easy self-help technique that can be performed even at home. Use a blunt instrument or your fingers to massage specific acupoints in the clockwise and anti-clockwise direction for at least three minutes. Physician Ho recommends the zu san li (ST36, 足三里), yin ling quan (SP9, 阴陵泉), and san yin jiao (SP6, 三阴交) to get rid of oedema. 

Pharmaceutical medicines 

If these methods don’t help, you can always use medicines that help relieve oedema. However, it’s recommended to give lifestyle and diet changes a try before resorting to medication.

Be wary of oedema causes and apply these tips to help you manage pain and swelling areas around your body. Do consult your doctor to ascertain the underlying cause if symptoms persist. Rest assured that there are effective therapies in both Western and alternative medicine that can relieve the issue.

References

  1. American Family Physician. 2005. Treatment of edema. [online] Available at:< https://www.aafp.org/dam/brand/aafp/pubs/afp/issues/2005/0601/p2111.pdf> Accessed on 5 August 2022] 
  2. Comprehensive Therapy. 2001. Approach to diagnosing lower extremity edema. [online] Available at: < https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12019-001-0021-5> [Accessed in 5 August 2022] 
  3. American Journal of Kidney Diseases. 1994. Diuretic Drugs and the Treatment of Edema: From Clinic to Bench and Back Again. [online] Available at: < https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027263861270272X> [Accessed on 5 August 2022] 

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