How to treat edema in the legs

Updated July 19, 2017

Oedema is swelling caused by fluid build-up in tissue. It can occur anywhere in the body, but is often first noticed in the legs, particularly the ankles. It occurs when capillaries leak fluid, usually due to built-up pressure. In response to this, the kidneys hold on to higher levels of water and sodium than usual to offset the loss. Oedema can be caused by health problems, diet, pregnancy, or medications. There are safe ways to treat the discomfort of oedema in the legs.

Elevate the legs. The Mayo Clinic recommends several lifestyle changes to treat oedema, including elevating swollen legs above the level of the heart for 30 minutes a time at least three times a day. Sleeping with the legs elevated can also be beneficial for people who suffer from oedema. A pillow beneath the knees or ankles will usually work.

Exercise. While increasing circulation might seem counterintuitive to decreasing oedema, exercise is the lifestyle change recommended the most by doctors. Exercise does not need to be too strenuous, particularly for anyone with health complications. Most people, however, are capable of some form of physician-approved exercise. Moving swollen legs can shift the excess fluid away from the legs and toward the heart.

Reduce your intake of sodium. Excess sodium in food leads to extra sodium in the body and, consequently, fluid build-up. This is especially true for people with compounding health problems. Anyone who already has a problem with swelling should not eat salty food. Avoiding foods high in sodium will help reduce the symptoms associated with oedema.

Avoid wide swings in temperature. Extreme temperature changes can cause oedema to become worse. Always wear clothing appropriate for the weather conditions, and use sunscreen to prevent sunburns. In addition, avoid excessively hot or cold baths and showers, which will also exacerbate oedema.


Treating any underlying medical conditions associated with oedema can improve overall health, including oedema. If medications are the root cause of swelling, it is advisable to talk to a doctor about other options. Most physicians are more than willing to give specific guidelines concerning sodium intake. Compression stockings reduce swelling by putting extra pressure on the legs. Many people find them helpful.


Oedema is a symptom of several serious medical conditions and should not be ignored. It is necessary to rule out any health problems before treating oedema. Always consult a doctor before taking any medications or herbal remedies, or making dramatic lifestyle changes. Treatment without a proper diagnosis could interact with certain medications or potentially complicate an illness.


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About the Author

April Paris is a freelance writer with a variety of interests. She has a B.A. in classics and a minor in English. After graduating from Baylor in 2005, she immediately moved into freelance work.