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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Ho Li Ying and Dr Angelica L Dumapit on October 25, 2022

What Is Edema And How Do You Treat It?

What is edema? This condition is characterized by excessive fluid retention in the body. Learn the causes and treatments here.

Swollen ankles min scaled

Were you too nervous to ask your doctor ‘what is edema‘ after being diagnosed? If so, you are not alone. The term can be intimidating, but research shows that it’s a common and persistent problem among Americans.

Approximately 20 percent of adult Americans had edema between the years 2000 and 2016. The condition is common in older, non-white females who also have obesity, hypertension, pain, and low activity levels.

In this guide, we’ll discuss what edema is and common causes to be aware of. Our natural health experts also weigh in on how to manage symptoms.

What Is Edema?

Edema is the medical term for swelling in the 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.

Causes

An image of salty, processed foods such as tortilla chips, potato chips, and pretzels
Overeating salty, processed foods may contribute to swelling in the body.

The cause of edema may be pregnancy, consumption of certain medications, or an underlying disease. Edema 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 edema by interfering with the fluid distribution and excretion from the body.

What Is Edema? According To TCM

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shares a different view on what causes edema.

“The main organs related to the development of edema 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.”

TCM Physician Ho Li Ying. 

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

At times, certain oral medicines produce edema 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. If a symptom presents, a medical professional should diagnose the cause of the edema.

Other serious causes of edema include heart failure, liver cirrhosis, and kidney failure. Lymph node damage following cancer surgery and severe, long-term protein deficiency can cause edema.

“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 edema are physical weakness, poor diet, overworking, and staying up late.”  

Physician Ho.

She recommends avoiding spicy, irritating, cold, and greasy foods as they damage the Spleen and Stomach. 

Signs And Symptoms Of Edema

A skin dimple is a sign of edema that appears when you press your finger into your skin and it leaves a dimple
If a dimple appears when you press and hold your skin, this could be a sign of edema.

Edema 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 edema, 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 edema develops after sitting for a long time, like on a long flight. In this case, edema may indicate a blood clot deep in your veins, which can be life-threatening. 

Edema Treatment Options

For any edema 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 edema to be relieved. Mild or benign cases can be treated at home with these measures. 

Home remedies 

An image of a person's elevated leg to reduce pain and swelling
Elevating your legs can help reduce swelling in your feet and ankles.

Physician Ho recommends simple home remedies and lifestyle changes to eliminate swelling 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 edema. Physician Ho also emphasizes the importance of not staying up late, having late-night snacks, and over-consuming fluids before bedtime.

For many people, edema 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 edema.

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. 

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

Diet  

An image of low sodium foods that are included in the DASH diet
The DASH diet may help reduce edema by limiting your salt intake.

Diet plays an important role in the development of edema. Often, it may develop simply due to an increase in salt consumption. Reducing salt intake itself by consuming a DASH diet may be enough to resolve edema.

Besides this, Physician Ho recommends diet or tea therapy to invigorate the Spleen, nourish the Lungs and Kidneys, and help produce urine.

She recommends roasted rice tea (Zhi Mi Cha), Codonopsis red date tea (Dang Shen Hong Zhao Cha), cordyceps pills (Chong Cao Wan), coix seeds (Yi Yi Ren), and tangerine peel tea (Chen Pi Cha).

Wintermelon (Dong Gua), corn silk (Yu Mi Si), Poria mushroom (Fu Ling), Chinese yam (Huai Shan), coix seeds (Yi Yi Ren), adzuki bean (Chi Xiao Dou) and fermented black soybeans (Dou Chi) can be used in soups to invigorate the Spleen, tonify qi, and remove Dampness.”

Physician Ho.

You can also add herbal soups to your diet to strengthen the Spleen and stomach, relieve Heat and expel Dampness, and keep your body cool in the hot summer months to reduce swelling.

Acupressure 

Acupressure is an easy self-help technique that can be performed 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), Yin Ling Quan (SP9), and San Yin Jiao (SP6) acupoints to get rid of symptoms. 

Pharmaceutical medicines 

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

Be wary of 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.

How do you manage edema? Let us know in the comments below.

References

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