edema in the legs

If you have chronic heart failure, your doctor might have you check whether you have fluid build-up in your feet, ankles or lower legs that causes swelling called edema. Here is a guide on what to look for and what you can do to prevent edema or swelling in your legs.

Signs of Edema

In addition to seeing swelling when you look at your feet and ankles, some of the key symptoms can include any of the following:

  • Your skin may look stretched and shiny
  • Your skin feels tight or painful
  • Your shoes and socks may be too tight
  • The color of your skin in the swollen area is different than the rest of your body
  • Your foot or leg feels heavy
  • It is hard to move your ankle or toes
  • It hurts when you touch your foot or leg
  • You have trouble walking
  • Your weight has gone up by 2-3 pounds overnight (this rapid gain is usually fluid)
  • Your skin dimples or dents in when pressed for 10 seconds, called "pitting edema."

What is Pitting Edema?

If you have "pitting edema," your doctor will want to know the grade when you call him or her. There are four "grades" or measurements of pitting edema. Press your foot or lower leg for 10 seconds and record what happens:

  • 0 (no pitting): your skin bounces back immediately after being pressed
  • 1+: You can barely see the dent
  • 2+: You see a light dent, but it goes away within 15 seconds
  • 3+: You see a deeper dent and it takes up to 30 seconds to go away
  • 4+: The dent is deep and takes more than 30 seconds to go away

How Can You Prevent Edema?

Most people don't see any swelling in the morning because the fluid in your body "levels off" during the night. To prevent edema or swelling during the day, you can do the following things:

  • Take all of your medicines as prescribed and know what each medicine does
  • Stay active; do not sit or stand too long
  • If you sit, keep your feet elevated
  • Eat foods that are low in sodium
  • Wear compression socks/stockings

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

Use your zone chart daily to see whether you need to talk to your doctor or go to the Emergency Room. Download a copy of the Zone Chart.

Mini Zone Chart

Edema is in the Yellow Zone, so you should call your cardiologist. They may adjust your medications and will want to know if that made a difference. Only adjust your medications if your doctor has given you instructions on how to do it. If you are not sure, always call your physician to get instructions.

If you are in the Red Zone, go to the Emergency Department. Red Zone symptoms include:

  • Passing out or fainting
  • Trouble breathing or suddenly cannot breathe, even after sitting for a few minutes
  • New chest pain that lasts more than 10 minutes, even after sitting down

Keeping an eye out for swelling in your feet, ankles and lower legs and working to avoid it will help keep you healthier longer. Make sure to check with your healthcare provider and give them updates about your edema or swelling.