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Leg Swelling in Aging: What to Know & What to Do - Part 4 of 5


How Leg Swelling is Treated

As I noted above: most of the time, leg swelling in an older adult is caused by chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), an issue with the leg veins not doing an adequate job to return blood to the heart.

What to know BEFORE starting a “water pill” for leg or ankle swelling

You might think that a diuretic (a “water pill”) will help, and they certainly are often prescribed for this purpose. However, research has shown that they often don’t help much, probably because they don’t really address the underlying issue, which is weak valves in the veins and local fluid overload. Furthermore, diuretics in older adults can easily cause side effects like dehydration low blood pressure, low potassium levels, and constipation.  They also increase urination, which can cause or worsen urinary continence issues. (For more on these issues, see How to Prevent and Treat Dehydration in Aging Adults and Urinary Incontinence in Aging.)

How to treat chronic venous insufficiency in aging adults

So before starting a water pill, be sure to ask your doctor about the cause of your leg swelling and consider trying these strategies first:

  • Elevate the legs: raise your legs to at least the level of your heart for 30 minutes 3 or four times a day – this habit uses gravity to help the veins drain the blood from the lower limbs to return to the heart for circulation.

  • Wear stockings: compression stockings with a low pressure (15-20 mmHg of pressure) are readily available at many drug stores and are not too difficult to put on and wear.  The stockings have higher pressure at the ankle which gradually reduces the higher up the leg it goes. Those with more moderate to severe edema may need to be specially measured and fitted for compression socks, which may require a prescription.

  • Reduce salt intake: salt (aka sodium) can worsen edema by promoting fluid retention. Lowering salt intake can also reduce the risk of high blood pressure.  Hide the saltshaker and avoid processed food and takeout.

  • Exercise the calf muscles: walking and pumping your calves is recommended to reduce the symptoms of CVI and speed the healing of ulcers if present.

Other treatment options for chronic venous insufficiency

  • Venoactive agents: these are compounds that act in a variety of ways to relieve CVI symptoms. They improve venous tone, improve lymphatic drainage, fight inflammation, and increase blood viscosity. Examples are horse chestnut seed extract, micronized purified flavonoid fraction (MPFF)and pycnogenol.  A large review of scientific studies of venoactive agents showed that they can reduce swelling.

  • Skin care: This may not help with edema but is a critical step to prevent ulcers (skin sores), which can occur as a complication of CVI.

  • Ulcer care: ulcers on the legs and feet from CVI can be chronic and hard to treat. A specialized wound care team is often consulted to advise about any topical treatments or surgical procedures that can help with healing.  All of the measures to reduce edema described above will help with ulcer prevention and healing.

Again, the goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and prevent other problems, like ulcers and discomfort.  Most older adults can treat their leg swelling with some of the strategies described above and maintain their usual activities and quality of life.

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