Dependent edema is a type of swelling (edema) in the lower body related to gravity. Without proper management, it can lead to a range of complications, including infection and poor circulation.
Edema is the medical term for swelling. It happens when extra fluid gets trapped in your body’s tissues. There are several types of edema, which can be the result of a variety of medical problems, such as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis, and kidney disease.
Dependent edema is a term that doctors use to describe gravity-related swelling in the lower body. Gravity has the effect of pulling fluid down toward the earth, causing it too pool in the lowest parts of your body, such as your feet, legs, or hands.
Dependent edema may happen to people with limited mobility due to paralysis, stroke, ALS, or another condition. If you’re bedridden, you might have dependent edema in your buttocks.
The primary symptom of edema is swelling or puffiness. In some cases, you might notice your skin looking stretched or shiny. You may also have trouble wearing shoes and socks if your feet are affected.
With dependent edema, pressing on the affected area can create dents. This characteristic is called pitting. If pressing on your skin doesn’t leave a pit or dent, you may have a different type of edema.
Gravity naturally pulls blood down toward your feet, or whichever part of your body is closest to the ground. The muscles and veins in your legs work together to pump blood up out of your legs and toward your heart. When this system doesn’t work properly, your legs fill up with fluid and swell. This could be due to muscular or venous problems. A buildup of fluid can also be caused certain medical conditions such as:
- heart failure
- kidney failure
Treatment for dependent edema involves a series of lifestyle changes and preventive measures. While some types of edema resolve after treating the underlying cause, conditions that cause dependent edema may not be curable.
There are several things you can do to help reduce dependent edema:
- Elevate the affected area. Raise the affected are above your heart to help the extra fluid drain back down to your heart.
- Wear compression stockings. Compression stockings put pressure on your legs and ankles to prevent fluid from collecting. They come in a variety of sizes and styles, and can even be custom made if needed.
- Practice manual mobility. If you can’t move your arms or legs, try manually moving them with your hand or assistance from someone else. This movement can reduce the buildup of fluid and activate muscle pumping.
- Eat a low-salt diet. Consuming too much salt can make you retain more water, which increases swelling.
Over time, dependent edema can lead to some complications.
Possible dependent edema complications include:
- pain in the affected area
- difficulty walking
- stretched skin
- decreased blood circulation
- itchy and tender skin
- varicose veins
- skin discoloration or thickening (also called stasis dermatitis)
- skin ulcers
You can help to prevent some of these complications by keeping the skin of the affected area clean and moisturized.
As your skin stretches, it becomes more fragile, especially if you develop stasis dermatitis. This makes your skin more vulnerable to an infection, such as cellulitis. You can reduce your risk of an infection by making sure you keep the skin of the affected area clean and moisturized.
Seek emergency treatment if you notice any signs of a skin infection, such as:
- wounds that won’t heal
- pus-like drainage
The underlying causes of dependent edema aren’t always curable, but there are several things you can do to reduce swelling. In many cases, a combination of elevation and compression provides the most relief.
If you find that these methods aren’t working for you, contact your doctor. You may need medication or a custom-made compression garment to help reduce your edema.