Dependent Edema: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & More

What Is Dependent Edema?

Dependent edema is swelling (edema) that affects certain parts of the body, often the legs. Gravity plays a key role in dependent edema. Getting a diagnosis and figuring out a treatment plan is an important step for people living with dependent edema. In this guide, we’ll explore dependent edema in-depth, including symptoms, causes, treatment options, and more.

What Is Edema?
What Is Dependent Edema?
What Are the Symptoms of Dependent Edema?
What Causes Dependent Edema?
How Is Dependent Edema Diagnosed?
How Do You Treat Dependent Edema?
Key Takeaways: Dependent Edema

What Is Edema?

Edema is a medical condition that’s caused by a buildup of fluid in a particular area of the body, which results in swelling. This fluid that builds up in your body is known as interstitial fluid, which is the fluid found in space around cells. The arms and legs are two areas most commonly affected by edema caused by gravity, making it difficult for fluid to flow away from those areas.

Edema can be caused by a wide range of factors, including medications, allergic reactions, medical conditions like congestive heart failure, and more. Edema occurs when the capillaries in your body leak fluid, which collects in the surrounding tissue and eventually leads to swelling if the lymphatic system is impaired or not functioning properly. Edema can also be hereditary, so you should keep an eye out for symptoms if edema runs in your family.

What Is Dependent Edema?

Dependent edema is a specific type of edema that affects areas of the body where gravity makes it easy for fluid to collect. Because dependent edema affects the parts of your body that are most affected by gravity, it typically results in a buildup of fluid in the arms, legs, and feet. Blood naturally collects in the lower parts of your body, and healthy bodies are able to pump blood from all areas of your body back to the heart. However, some individuals may have circulatory issues that affect their body’s ability to work against gravity and circulate blood back to the heart, resulting in dependent edema.1

Many people who develop dependent edema have lifestyle factors that can make this condition more likely. People who are bedbound or spend extended periods of time sitting down may develop dependent edema, and it’s also more common in people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes. If you think you may have dependent edema, you should talk to your doctor about how to treat edema. Starting treatment early on can help prevent complications resulting from dependent edema, including edema blisters and skin ulcers.

What Are the Symptoms of Dependent Edema?

Recognizing the symptoms of dependent edema can help you get treatment sooner, which can prevent complications and reduce the severity of swelling. Here are some of the symptoms you may experience if you have dependent edema:

symptoms of dependent edema

  • Swelling: Swelling is the most common symptom of dependent edema, often appearing in the arms, legs, and feet. You may notice a reduction in swelling when your legs are elevated for extended periods of time, which is a result of gravity helping to direct fluid away from the swelling.
  • Stretched or shiny skin: As your legs or arms start to swell up, you may notice the skin in the swollen area starting to take on a shiny or stretched appearance. You may also notice a slightly different texture to your skin, especially during the advanced stages of edema.
  • Tight clothing: If you’re suddenly having trouble fitting into clothing that you’ve worn comfortably for months, that may be a sign that you’re developing edema. Leg edema can make it difficult to squeeze your legs into pants that normally fit, so edema may be a contributing factor if your clothes are suddenly too tight.
  • Pitting: Pitting occurs when pressing a finger on the swollen area leaves an indentation. The severity of pitting edema is determined by the depth of the pit as well as how long it remains. If you have pitting edema, you should visit a doctor to determine its cause, severity, and treatment options.

What Causes Dependent Edema?

If you want to prevent dependent edema or determine whether you’re at risk, it’s important to understand the causes of dependent edema. While the fluid accumulation is partially a result of gravity, there are several factors that can cause dependent edema, including:2

  • Congestive heart failure: Congestive heart failure can affect your circulation, making it harder for your body to move fluid away from swollen parts of the body. If you’ve recently had heart failure or another serious heart problem, you should talk to your doctor about steps you can take to prevent edema.
  • Chronic venous insufficiency: Chronic venous insufficiency is a medical condition where the valves in the veins are faulty, affecting your ability to circulate blood against the flow of gravity. If you have CVI, you should work with a doctor or specialist to create a treatment and management plan to help promote the flow of fluid.
  • Kidney disease: Your kidneys play an important role in removing excess fluid from your body, so kidney failure is a potential cause of dependent edema. If your kidneys can’t regulate fluid levels in the body, dependent edema may occur as a result.
  • Liver disease: When your liver can’t make enough of certain blood proteins, it can increase your risk of developing dependent edema.
  • Lymphatic system damage: Lymphedema is a type of edema that’s caused by a buildup of lymphatic fluid in the body. If a lymph node or vessel is damaged and interrupting the flow of lymph fluid, you may develop lymphedema in your arms, legs, hands, and feet.
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis of the liver affects the way blood flows through your liver, which in turn increases blood pressure in other parts of the body. This increased pressure can lead to dependent edema.

How Is Dependent Edema Diagnosed?

Untreated edema can lead to numerous complications, so getting a diagnosis is an important first step. In order to diagnose dependent edema, doctors perform a physical examination, look at your medical history, and use imaging tests.

The first step is a basic physical examination, during which your doctor will check your extremities for swelling. If swelling is present in the arms or legs, your doctor may press a finger on the area to check for pitting. This physical examination helps your doctor determine whether further testing is necessary.

Because edema can be a result of other medical conditions as well as genetics, your doctor may also look at your medical history. A look at your medical history can help doctors understand whether edema runs in your family and what disease(s) you may have that puts you at risk for dependent edema.

Finally, doctors may use various types of imaging tests to make a more accurate diagnosis. Ultrasounds and pulse volume recording are two of the imaging tests that are commonly used to diagnose edema.2 Keep in mind that these tests aren’t always used to diagnose dependent edema.

How Do You Treat Dependent Edema?

From switching to a diet for edema to wearing compression garments, there are several ways you can minimize the symptoms of edema and reduce the risk of complications. Here are some common dependent edema treatment and management options:

tips for treating dependent edema

  • Compression garments: Compression garments apply gentle pressure to swollen areas of the body, helping to guide fluid away from the area of swelling back toward the heart. This can help in relieving swelling, pain, and other symptoms.
  • Pneumatic compression devices: Pneumatic compression devices, such as the Entre and Flexitouch Plus devices from Tactile Medical, allow you to get relief from swelling at home. These devices inflate and deflate intermittently to promote circulation and reduce swelling.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help improve your circulation, plus it can help you manage your weight if that’s a potential contributing factor. Consult a doctor to ensure the exercises you perform are safe if you’re living with dependent edema.
  • Elevation: Because dependent edema is largely a result of gravity, elevating your legs can reduce swelling and the symptoms by encouraging blood to flow toward your heart.
  • Low-salt diet: Salt can cause you to retain fluid, so switching to a low-salt diet can be a good way to get relief from dependent edema.
  • Skin care: If you have dependent edema, keeping your skin clean and properly moisturized can help prevent injuries and complications like infections. You should also ensure your fingernails and toenails are properly trimmed to reduce the risk of scratches.3

Key Takeaways: Dependent Edema

While dependent edema is largely a result of gravity, genetics and certain medical conditions can increase your risk of developing edema. If you think you have edema, you should visit your doctor to get it diagnosed and start a treatment plan as soon as possible. Combining lifestyle changes with compression devices like the Entre or Flexitouch Plus from Tactile Medical can give you much-needed relief from pain and swelling. If you want relief from dependent edema, contact Tactile Medical today to learn more about the Flexitouch Plus system.

1. Leonard, Jayne. What Is Dependent Edema? Medical News Today.
2. MedStar Health. Dependent Edema.
3. Trayes KP, Studdiford JS, Pickle S, Tully AS. Edema: diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2013 Jul 15;88(2):102-10.