What Is Leg Edema?

The foot of a person with leg edema.
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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 19 March 2014
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Leg edema is a form of swelling caused by an accumulation of fluid that seeps from stressed capillaries in the lower extremities. There are a variety of situations and conditions that may contribute to the capillary dysfunction associated with edema onset, including remaining physically stationary for prolonged periods of time, the regular use of certain medications, and compromised organ function. Treatment for this potentially serious condition is usually centered on remedying the underlying cause for the swelling, as well as the implementation of dietary changes and use of diuretic medication to flush excess fluids from one’s system. If left untreated, leg edema may impair one’s mobility and lead to the development of serious complications, including compromised circulation and dermal ulceration.

In order to establish whether the edema is occurring as an independent condition or a symptom, several diagnostic tests may be administered following an initial consultation and physical examination. Since some cases of leg swelling are caused by the presence of a protein deficiency, a urinalysis and blood test may be performed to check for markers indicative of any imbalance that may be present. Additional tests may include imaging testing, including a computerized tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to evaluate organ functionality and rule out the presence of any conditions that may contribute to the edema.


The development of leg edema is essentially the result of compromised capillary function due to injury or stress placed on the affected blood vessels. When normal capillary function is jeopardized, fluid will often leak into one’s system, triggering swelling. In the presence of capillary dysfunction, renal function frequently decreases to compensate for the buildup of excess fluid which only serves to add to the fluid retention, making it worse.

Several situations and conditions may result in the development of a leg edema. The regular use of certain medications, including synthetic hormones and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may contribute to the development of leg swelling. Diets high in sodium and a lack of physical movement, such as sitting excessively, may adversely impact capillary function leading to fluid retention. Pregnant women often develop some degree of leg edema during their pregnancy that generally subsides following delivery. In some cases, the onset of an acute edema may be indicative of a more serious medical condition, such as compromised renal, heart, or lymphatic function.

During the early stages of leg edema development, a symptomatic individual may notice that his or her legs appear to be shinier than normal or that the skin seems stretched tight. When one remains stationary for very long, he or she may experience stiffness or discomfort in his or her legs upon moving. As an edema progresses, indentations may appear on one’s legs when pressure is applied and remain present for a few moments once pressure is released.

Treatment for leg edema is usually centered on alleviating its underlying cause. For many, dietary and lifestyle changes may be recommended, including limiting one’s sodium and water intake, exercising regularly, and avoiding situations that cause one to remain stationary for very long. In many cases, individuals with leg edema are prescribed a diuretic to promote the flushing of excess fluid from their system. As with many medications, the regular use of diuretics can pose some risk to certain individuals and these should be discussed with a qualified health care provider.


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