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Leg Swelling in Aging: What to Know & What to Do - Part 3 of 5


How Leg Swelling is Medically Evaluated

What to Tell Your Doctor About Leg Swelling

If you’ve noticed new or worsening leg swelling, it’s important to let your health provider know, so that you can be evaluated. The doctor should check to make sure that you aren’t suffering from a potentially serious problem (such as one involving the heart, kidney, or liver), and will generally try to determine what is causing the leg swelling.

Questions the doctor will probably ask include:

  • How long has the edema been there?

  • Is it affecting both legs equally, or one more than the other?

  • Is it painful? (Venous edema can cause aches, lymphedema is painless)

  • What medications are being taken? Any recent changes?

  • Does it get better overnight? Or with elevation of the legs?

  • Any shortness of breath? Any difficulty lying flat?

Of course, they will also want to take a complete health history, to know whether you’ve ever had cancer, radiation or surgery to your pelvis or legs, and any known heart, liver or kidney problems.

Signs that more urgent evaluation of leg swelling may be needed

Certain signs and symptoms should prompt a more urgent evaluation. They include:

  1. Breathing symptoms: Shortness of breath, cough, and trouble breathing when lying flat might be indicators of pulmonary edema, from CHF or another cause. If a person has these symptoms along with leg swelling, they should seek medical attention right away.

  2. Swelling on one side only: Most of the causes of swelling described above will cause both legs to be affected, so if only one leg is swollen, it might be caused by:

  • A blood clot, which usually does limited harm in the leg but could break off and travel to the lung causing severe illness or even death,

  • Infection

  • Blockage related to a tumor

(Of course, if a person has previously had a blood clot or injury to one leg, it may appear quite different from the other leg and the swelling might be chronically asymmetric, so that needs to be considered as well.)

  1. Pain: Most of the time, edema due to CVI is painless, although some people experience discomfort similar to an achy tiredness.  Severe or significant pain should not be ignored. In particular, a sudden severe pain in the legs or the chest is a reason to seek help without hesitation.

What Your Doctor Will Do

Your doctor will check for “pitting,” by gently pressing on the swollen area. Pitting occurs when pressure to the swollen area leaves a little depression behind for a few seconds to minutes.  Most causes of edema are pitting, but if there’s no pitting we would think about lymphedema or a fat deposit (lipedema).

A close examination of the legs is vital, to check for any varicose veins, discoloration of the skin, ulcers or breaks in the skin, and skin dryness.  If the legs seem to be different from each other in size, your doctor might measure both limbs to see if there’s true asymmetry.

It’s also important to do an examination of the heart and lungs. Expect your doctor to listen to the breath sounds and heart sounds, and to check your pulse and blood pressure. Doctors will also often examine the belly, to feel the liver and also make sure they don’t see signs of edema outside the legs.

Potential Tests and Additional Evaluation

Based on what you tell the doctor, your past medical history, and what the doctor observes through the physical examination, the doctor will then determine whether additional testing is needed.

Tests that may be ordered include urinalysis (to look for protein in the urine), creatinine (a test of kidney function), TSH (some thyroid conditions lead to edema), glucose,  albumin (a major protein found in the blood) and liver function tests may be ordered. (For more on blood tests, see Understanding Laboratory Tests: 10 Commonly Used Blood Tests for Older Adults.)

Tests of cardiac function may be a part of the work-up as well, such as a chest x-ray to look for an enlarged heart or fluid in the lungs, or an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound study to look at the heart chambers and muscle contractility.

D-dimer is a blood test that can help detect a blood clot, and a doppler ultrasound of the leg can usually find a deep vein thrombosis – a common cause of swelling in one leg only.

If your doctor is looking for deeper causes to explain leg swelling, they may refer you for a sleep study.  Sleep apnea, if left untreated, can lead to the right-sided heart failure that we mentioned earlier.

It’s also possible that your doctor might not feel the need to order additional testing. Especially if bloodwork has been done in the past few months and if the symptoms and examination fit with chronic venous insufficiency, it can be reasonable for the doctor to proceed with treatment for this condition.

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