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    Painless Swollen Legs: Many Causes from Mild to Serious

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Painless swollen legs are relatively common and usually easily managed. But, according to the December issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter, this condition — called peripheral edema — is sometimes associated with a more serious underlying disease.

Edema is the result of excess fluid in the tissues. Normally, the blood vessels, lymph systems and tissues surrounding these vessels maintain a balance of fluid. When these forces are out of balance, the tiniest blood vessels (capillaries) may leak fluid that ends up in surrounding tissues, causing swelling.

Other edema symptoms may include skin that is stretched or shiny; skin that stays indented after being pressed for at least five seconds; and an increase in abdomen size. Edema can affect the lungs and cause shortness of breath that requires immediate medical care.

Mild peripheral edema, without serious symptoms such as shortness of breath or high blood pressure, is usually the result of not-so-worrisome causes including:

  • Too much salt consumption the previous day
  • Age — older age increases susceptibility to swollen legs
  • Being overweight
  • Standing or sitting for extended periods of time

Edema can also signal serious health concerns such as weak or damaged leg veins, congestive heart failure, scarring of the liver, blood clots in the lower legs, chronic kidney damage and pelvic tumor.

A physical exam and diagnostic tests can help sort out the underlying cause of peripheral edema. Tests might include blood analysis, urinalysis, electrocardiogram or chest X-ray.

In addition to treating any underlying condition, a physician will likely suggest management techniques to help prevent fluid retention. Options include wearing special compression stockings, lying down with legs elevated for an hour or two a day, and water aerobics or walking in a swimming pool. For more severe cases, a fluid pill (diuretic) may be prescribed.

Mayo Clinic Health Letter is an eight-page monthly newsletter of reliable, accurate and practical information on today's health and medical news. To subscribe, please call 800-333-9037 (toll-free), extension 9771, or visit Mayo Clinic Health Letter Online.

Media Contact: Ginger Plumbo, 507-284-5005 (days), newsbureau@mayo.edu

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