If you are someone who puffs up with water retention in the warm weather, the prospect of cooler days might be a relief (although damp, heavy weather can make you swell up too) Or you may be someone whose calves, ankles and feet are often a little "cushiony" with water retention despite the weather. They may be so cushiony that they dimple when you press into them. That kind of swelling can be painful, too-and it can be a sign of a serious health problem, even a medical emergency. But for most people who deal with limb swelling-men and women alike it is simply a recurring nuisance that a doctor may or may not be able to diagnose. Here are some surefire remedies to soothe the swelling... and also advice for when limb swelling might be life-threatening...

Why we swell

Swelling caused by fluid buildup is called edema (pronounced "ih-dee-mah"). When it affects only your arms, legs, hands and feet, it is called peripheral edema. We retain water because blood vessels in our arms, legs, hands and feet expand, or dilate. This dilation can be caused by hot or humid weather or a number of other causes. The dilation makes it easier for fluid to leak out of blood vessels into surrounding tissue, causing the tissue to swell. Sitting or standing in one position for a long time without moving makes the swelling worse because gravity just pulls all that fluid down to pool in your hands, legs and feet.

Relief for swollen limbs

Besides weather-related effects on blood vessels, the reason why some people swell can't always be figured out, but common disease-related causes of swelling are kidney and cardiovascular disease. Whether a doctor can or cannot pinpoint the cause of peripheral edema, he or she too often prescribes a diuretic and suggests that you cut back on salt.

Although cutting back on salt may be great advice, taking a diuretic may not be unless the swelling is related to high blood pressure or high blood pressure medication. But there are safe, natural ways to relieve swelling...

Leg elevation. Keep your legs elevated while sitting for prolonged periods. Yes, put a comfy, compact ottoman under your desk. .. or put your legs up and rest your feet on that extra chair. Also, prop your feet up on a few pillows while lying on the sofa or in bed. Don't just bear with swelling because, if it happens often, it can cause your skin and tissue to stretch and change. It can also lead to more serious and lasting edema.

Walking breaks. If you really can't plop your feet up on a chair in a place where you regularly spend time-such as in an office or another "noncasual" setting-then make a point of getting up from the chair and taking five-minute walking breaks every hour or so. This increases circulation and gets your lymphatic system to pump out excess fluid.

Compression stockings. If you need to stand for a long time during the day, wear support hose or compression knee-highs or stockings. These help blood circulation between your feet and your heart-with one benefit being more spring in your step. In fact, athletes often use compression stockings to enhance their performance.

Compression stockings come in many styles and colors, price ranges (from about $10 to $100), sizes and pressures. So, when buying compression stockings online, you will need to find sellers that provide guidance on sizing and compression needs. One source is Bright Life Direct (www.brightlifedirect.com). It carries all the major brands and has easy-to-follow guidance and FAQs to figure out what size and kind of compression stocking is right for you-and right for your budget.

Massage your hands. Swollen hands? To enhance circulation and lymphatic drainage, apply lotion to your hands and massage one hand and then the other, starting with the fingertips and moving down the hand to the wrist. Also exercise the hands by holding them at chest level and clenching and unclenching them. To do this effectively, gently make a fist and then open your fist and spread your fingers. Massage and exercise your hands several times a day when edema is acting up.

When edema is dangerous

There are other factors that can cause edema... and they can be life-threatening. Besides cardiovascular and kidney disease, other causes, which were spelled out by the American Academy of Family Physicians in a recent article by and for doctors, include liver disease, sleep apnea, allergies, use of certain medications (such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, anti-hypertensives, corticosteroids, antidepressants, diabetes medications, hormone replacement therapy) and chemotherapy. Edema also can be caused by surgical removal or malfunction of the lymph nodes, which, as part of the lymphatic system, filter fluid and cleanse the body of bacteria, viruses and other debris.

What's the danger of unchecked edema? Besides the fact that you might have a serious underlying condition needing treatment, all that swelling and stretching of the skin can cause a flaky, eczema-like appearance and even skin ulcers. Ulcers, in turn, can lead to serious skin infections, such as cellulitis, where the infection bores through the skin and into underlying tissue. And you probably also know that chronic swollen legs and feet can put you at risk for blood clots that can lodge in a leg or travel up to the lungs, heart, brain or another part of your body. This is called thromboembolism (or stroke when it hits your brain)-and, just like a stroke, it can kill you.

If you are having symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat or pain and heat in a limb, be sure to get to a doctor or even an emergency room right away. You could be experiencing thromboembolism. The symptoms may be accompanied by chest pain, fever or intense anxiety (a feeling of doom). Once treated for a thromboembolic attack, you may be put on a medication to prevent blood clots and be instructed to wear compression stockings.

For all these reasons, if you have chronic edema-even if you can get relief from the self-treatments described above-it's a good idea to get it checked out by a doctor. In addition to the suggestions listed above, additional steps a doctor might take if you have severe chronic edema include...

Checking for clots. Even if you are not having a thromboembolic emergency, your doctor may order an ultrasound of the swollen limb to see whether dots have formed. If so, he or she will likely put you on a blood-thinning drug to prevent a thromboembolic event.

Prescribing pneumatic compression. If swelling is severe and related to surgical removal or malfunction of lymph nodes, you might be instructed in the use of a pneumatic compression device, an inflatable garment resembling a boot, sock or sleeve that does the work of a compression stocking but with greater intensity.

Recommended physiotherapy. You also may be referred to a physiotherapist for massage and movement therapy and specialized compression techniques that involves use of bandage wrappings.

So do not endure swollen limbs simply because it's something that you've put up with for years. Keeping the swelling in check and getting a handle on the underlying cause, when possible, can save you from major health woes down the line.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in