Lower leg edema refers to swelling of the ankles or calves caused by a high volume of fluid in body tissues or blood vessels. It might occur in both legs or only one leg, depending on the cause of the swelling. Edema is generally only one symptom of an underlying medical issue, and appropriate treatment will address the root cause of the indicated medical condition.
Edema is a general condition defined by an abnormally high amount of fluid within body tissues or the circulatory system. The body's natural balance of water becomes upset as too little fluid moves from the tissues to the blood vessels or when more fluid than usual is moving from the blood vessels into body tissues. Either case results in mild to severe swelling. Lower leg edema refers to swelling that is specific to any area of the leg below the knee, most frequently the ankle area.
Lower leg edema might occur in both legs or in only one leg, depending on the underlying cause. Edema is an indicator of one or more unresolved medical conditions. A blood clot in the leg might cause fluids to pool, resulting in swelling, discoloration and/or pain in the affected leg.
Similarly, a tumor could compress vessels in the leg. Varicose veins, which have weak vein walls or valves, also can cause swelling in a specific area of the leg. Gout, arthritis and a localized infection are other potential causes of edema featuring only one leg.
When lower leg edema occurs in both legs simultaneously, a generalized condition is more likely to be the culprit. Swelling in both legs can be caused by certain medical issues, such as kidney disease, or by exposure to heat, which causes the blood vessels to expand. High sodium intake, increased hormone levels in pregnancy and prolonged sitting or standing are common causes of edema. Advanced age also is a significant factor in this condition. Other potential causes include burns or sunburn, insect bites or stings and injury to the foot or ankle.
Side effects from medications should be ruled out as a possible cause of edema. Some antidepressants, including monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors and tricyclics, can trigger edema. Steroid drugs also commonly feature swelling as a side effect. Other medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, also might be the underlying cause.
Treatment of lower leg edema will depend on the underlying medical condition. For example, reducing sodium intake or increasing the level of daily exercise might be appropriate. The discomfort from swollen tissues can be decreased by elevating the legs at least 12 inches (30.5 cm) above the level of the heart. This can be done three to four times daily for approximately 10 to 15 minutes each time. Elastic support stockings, massage and diuretic herbs are other possible treatments.
Some foods are believed to aggravate edema. Individuals who have edema should consider appropriate dietary adjustments to reduce or avoid these foods. Foods that can make edema worse include dairy products, pickles, olives, animal proteins and chocolate. Stimulants such as alcohol, sugar and caffeine also could produce this effect.