Have you noticed how your legs tend to swell when the weather is extra hot, or if you are standing for long periods of time, or if you eat a lot of salty food? You haven’t? I’m sad, because now you can’t fully enjoy this article about edema. Edema is the condition of excess fluid in the body and results in swelling. It is a very common problem, more common the older one gets, until you actually die, after which it is extremely uncommon, virtually unheard of. Edema is bad. It can cause pain, skin breakdown, infection, and is the leading cause of kankles.
Why do we get edema? To understand how edema and swelling come about, you have to understand that there is a balance in place. Arteries carry blood from the heart under high pressure and they leak a little bit into everything. But this is okay because veins and lymphatic vessels tend to suck up the extra fluid by osmosis and deliver it back into circulation. So you are constantly leaking and sucking, leaking and sucking, incessantly, all day long. I would provide the sound effects, but they are nasty and wouldn’t survive the editing. Edema develops when the leakage increases, or the sucking decreases, or both.
Here are some reasons for edema. Eating too much salt causes you body to retain extra water, more water causes more pressure in your vessels and more leaking. Hot weather makes veins dilate leak more. There is also our unfortunate habit of standing upright for long periods of time. Standing increases the pressure in our leg vessels, once again more leaking. The long term effect of this is to stretch the veins and lymphatic vessels and to screw up the little valves within them. These valves are designed to let blood flow one way, from the leg back to the heart and not in reverse. Stretching these vessels pulls apart the valve leaflets. They stop working and edema develops. The end result is that as we age, we leak more and suck less.
There are ways to prevent edema. Low salt diets help and they also lower blood pressure, and they also taste crappy. Compression stockings are really the best way to rid edema, although getting your legs into them is very difficult. Another trick is to elevate your legs when sitting. The extreme of this would be to stand on your head all day long. While this would completely eliminate the edema of the legs, your head would eventually become enormous and you would look just like Charlie Brown. Then you would have to wear a compression stocking hat. Clearly this approach is ridiculous and as a doctor I do not recommend it, at all.
Be aware of the more ominous causes for edema. Clot formation in the deep veins “DVT’s” are one example. Usually only one leg swells and it can cause shortness of breath, but then so does trying to stuff a sausage into a stocking. Heart failure is famous for causing swelling in the legs. The swelling from this usually develops rapidly and is accompanied by weight gain and some shortness of breath. If you have heart disease and your legs swell, it is important to see your doctor right away. Do not stand upright for long periods of time while eating salty potato chips in a hot room. Do not stand on your head. Do not try to stuff a sausage into a stocking.