The human body is 60% water – We have water in our muscles, blood, bones, and organs. Water is undeniably essential for our survival. However, sometimes our body may hold too much water. When this happens, fluid retention — also known as edema, can occur.
Edema is a condition that is caused by water retention in the body. The water your body retains becomes trapped in your body’s tissues and can cause puffiness and swelling in the body.
While edema is very common in the legs, ankles, and feet, it can affect any body part. In some cases, edema can affect the entire body, including the face, hands, and abdomen.
Many things can cause excess fluid to build up inside the body. It could result from a problem in the circulatory system or staying immobile for long periods. Sometimes fluid retention in your legs could be a side effect of pregnancy and menstruation in some women.
Luckily, edema isn’t usually a cause for concern. The general symptoms include swelling and discomfort. However, in some rare cases, water retention in your legs could signify a severe medical condition, heart failure, or kidney disease.
If you’re experiencing an unexpected or severe case of water retention in your legs, make sure you seek medical attention immediately. The good news is that most cases of edema are mild, and you can reduce water retention with a few simple techniques.
Symptoms of Water Retention in the Legs
The usual symptom of water retention is swelling and discomfort in the legs. Other signs of edema might include:
- Stretched or shiny skin
- Swelling or puffiness of the tissue directly under your skin, especially in your legs or arms
- Increased abdominal size
- Skin that retains a dimple (pits) after being pressed for several seconds
Common Causes of Water Retention in the legs
Our body uses the circulatory system, lymphatic system, urinary system, kidneys, and liver to regulate water levels. If there is a problem with any of these complex systems, the body may find it hard to remove excess water. This excess water can find its way into body tissues and cause swelling.
Other potential causes of water retention in the legs include;
Our capillaries are thin blood vessels that help us deliver fluid to our surrounding tissues. This fluid supplies necessary nutrients and oxygen to our tissues. When our cells get the nutrients, the fluid returns to the capillaries.
By doing so, our capillaries help us regulate fluid balance in the body. Some medical conditions, skin trauma, and certain medications can cause capillaries to break. When this happens, fluid cannot re-enter the capillaries, and fluid retention can occur.
Fluid also leaves damaged capillaries and enters tissues, which can cause edema. People with systemic leaky capillary syndrome are prone to developing this type of edema.
Heart problems can affect your heart’s ability to pump blood effectively, affecting normal pressure within the blood vessels. If this happens, it can cause blood to store up in the legs, ankles, feet, and abdomen. Blood can also settle in the lungs, which can cause breathing problems.
Congestive heart failure is potentially life-threatening, so if you notice swelling in your feet accompanied by signs of heart problems, you must seek emergency medical attention.
Problems with the lymphatic system
Your lymphatic system is responsible for carrying lymph through your body, maintaining fluid balance, and protecting your body against infections. The lymph is a fluid that contains white blood cells, which helps the immune system protect the body against infection.
Your lymphatic system supplies and reabsorbs lymphatic fluid through the body to maintain your body fluid balance.
If there is a problem or obstruction in the lymphatic system, it could affect fluid reabsorption. The unabsorbed fluid can start to build up in tissues. This can cause swelling in certain body parts, including the legs, arms, feet, abdomen, and ankles. This type of edema is known as lymphedema.
The kidneys are essential in maintaining fluid levels in the body. They excrete excess fluid and salts in the body. When you have a problem with your kidneys, they become unable to remove the body’s extra fluid.
Therefore, this fluid buildup in the body can cause leg edema.
People with nephrotic syndrome or other chronic kidney diseases usually experience swelling in the legs, hands, and face.
The human body changes during pregnancy, and one of the effects is the body holding more water than usual. Coupled with the extra weight and hormonal changes, the excess fluid can cause swelling in the legs and feet. Luckily, edema resulting from pregnancy usually resolves on its own after birth.
It may be a sign of pre-eclampsia if you notice sudden swelling in your legs during pregnancy. If you experience headaches, blurry vision, vomiting, pain under the ribs, or along swollen feet during pregnancy, ensure you seek immediate medical attention.
People that stay in one position for extended periods are prone to developing edema in the legs and feet. The effect of gravity will pull the excess fluid in your body downwards and cause edema.
If you have a sedentary lifestyle, you must keep your feet raised occasionally.
Wear compression stockings, and practice leg exercises, rotating your ankles such as raising and lowering the feet or ankles.
One common symptom of obesity in people is swelling in the feet. The reason is – that excess weight can put pressure on blood vessels and cause edema. Obesity also increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney disease – all of which can cause edema.
The human body needs a balanced diet to function correctly. Without specific proteins like albumin, the body loses its ability to flush out excess fluid.
So, a person with a severe protein deficiency may retain water in their legs.
Some certain medications can cause water retention in the legs. Examples of drugs that can cause edema include:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- some diabetes medications
- calcium channel blockers
- corticosteroid like prednisone
- some hormonal therapies, including some birth control
If you notice swelling while using a medication, visit your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe an alternative or recommend you stop the drug altogether.
Hormonal imbalance in the body can trigger fluid retention in the body. For example, a menstruating woman undergoes hormonal changes that can cause a fluid buildup in the body. Other symptoms of menstruation include bloating and breast tenderness, which can contribute to edema.
Thyroid conditions can also cause water retention in the legs. Since thyroid glands help us maintain fluid levels, a problem with the thyroid glands can cause fluid buildup and edema in the legs.
Cushing’s syndrome also causes the adrenal glands to overproduce steroid hormone, which can cause swelling in the legs.
Cirrhosis is a severe liver disease that causes the body to retain fluid. Low albumin levels and other blood proteins are also cirrhosis symptoms.
This excess body fluid is stored in the tissue and can cause edema in the abdomen and legs.
Treatment For Water Retention in the Legs
Edema can be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause. Fortunately, most cases of edema are not severe. You can treat it with lifestyle changes, including exercising and diet changes. Your doctor will ask you questions and conduct a few examinations to determine the cause of your edema.
When he finds what is causing water retention in your legs, your doctor will treat the swelling depending on the underlying cause. For instance, if the swelling in your feet is caused by lung disease, your doctor may advise you to stop smoking.
If your edema results from heart disease, your doctor will try and treat the heart condition. He may also advise you to reduce your alcohol intake.
If the swelling in your legs results from medication, changing the medication or reducing the dosage may help you reduce the swelling. However, you must talk to your doctor before stopping any medication.
In addition to treating the underlying diseases that cause edema, other treatments and preventive measures you can take to keep water retention in your body include:
- Place a pillow under your legs when sitting down or lying down for extended periods. Remember to keep your legs elevated above the level of your heart.
- Do not stay in one place for too long without moving.
- Wear support stockings, which put pressure on your legs and prevent fluids from settling in your legs and ankles. You can get these stockings from your pharmacy.
- Ask your doctor about reducing your salt intake.
Follow your doctor’s recommendations for taking medications. Your doctor might prescribe a diuretic (commonly called a “water pill”), which helps your body remove its excess fluid.
- Avoid putting extra pressure on any swollen areas.
- Call your doctor immediately if you have any pain, redness, or heat in a swollen area; have an open sore, or experience shortness of breath or swelling of only one limb.
When to see a doctor about Water Retention in the Legs
Fortunately, water retention in the legs isn’t a cause for concern. Most times, you can get rid of edema by following a few simple tricks. However, if you experience swelling in your legs along with
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
Make sure you visit your doctor immediately. The above symptoms could be signs of pulmonary edema requiring prompt treatment.
If you also develop swelling and leg pain after sitting for an extended period, ensure you call your doctor. Constant leg pain and swelling can signal a blood clot deep in your vein (deep vein thrombosis, or DVT).
- Edema (swelling) and cancer treatment.
- Gasparis, AP, et al. (2020). Diagnostic approach to lower limb edema.
- Swollen ankles, feet, and legs (edema). (2018).
- Ebrahimi, E., Khayati Motlagh, S., Nemati, S., & Tavakoli, Z. (2012, November 22). Effects of magnesium and vitamin b6 on the severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms. Journal of Caring Sciences (1)4, 183-189
- Heine, R. P., & Swamy, G. K. (2009, August). Lower-extremity edema during late pregnancy
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, November 25). Water retention: Relieve this premenstrual symptom