Better Me

Edema: What’s Causing Your Swollen Feet (Cankles)

Edema, or swelling to parts of the body, is a common problem most everyone has experienced at some point in their lives.

Whether you’ve eaten too many salty chips the night before or have a growing baby belly, sometimes you may wake up with Vienna sausages for fingers and thick cankles, a slang term that combines the words calf and ankle.

Sometimes it’s just par for the course, but other times edema could be a sign of something more serious. Here’s what you should know about edema, how to treat swelling and when you should talk to your doctor.

What causes edema?

Many things like eating too much salt or carrying a growing baby for 9 months can cause extra fluid to build in the tissues of your body. Sitting or standing still for too long can pull fluid down into your legs and feet. You can even get some swelling as a side effect of certain medications like those that control blood pressure.

Sometimes, however, the swelling you’re experiencing could actually be a warning sign of a more serious medical condition, such as venous insufficiency, congestive heart failure, preeclampsia or kidney disease and liver disease.

What are the symptoms of edema?

While it’s common to experience swelling in your feet, calves, legs and ankles, edema can occur anywhere in the body including your upper body and organs.

Signs that you have edema include:

  • Swelling or puffiness of the tissue
  • Shiny or stretched skin
  • Skin that retains a dimple after being pressed for several seconds (You’ll notice an indentation where you press)
  • Skin that is red and warm near the swelling
  • Difficulty moving joints

If you have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor as they may want to do some tests to see what is causing your edema. However, you should seek immediate medical attention if you experience these symptoms along with shortness of breath or chest pains.

“It is particularly important to inform your primary care physician if you are experiencing leg swelling with shortness of breath or significant pain in the area of swelling as these can be signs of a more serious underlying health concern,” said Colton Redding, DO, a family medicine physician with Banner Health Center in Loveland, CO. “Swelling in conjunction with difficulty breathing or pain in the area of swelling can be signs of heart failure, pulmonary edema or underlying blood clot formation.”

How is edema treated?

“Treatment can vary widely based on the cause but often if your swelling is simply related to poor venous flow or venous insufficiency, simple conservative treatments can be quite beneficial,” Dr. Redding said.

For mild cases of edema, here are some lifestyle adjustments you can do at home:

  • Elevate your legs when you are sitting or lying down to help improve blood flow and decrease swelling.
  • Wear compression stockings, which are available at most local drugstores or pharmacies.
  • Reduce your salt intake as too much salt can increase fluid retention and worsen swelling.
  • Engage in regular aerobic exercise, as approved by your healthcare provider, to improve blood flow, muscle tone and promote weight loss.
  • Do not sit or stand for long periods of time without taking time to move around or rest your feet.

“If you have more severe edema, however, your doctor may recommend other treatment options, such as a diuretic to help reduce swelling or an adjustment of certain medications,” Dr. Redding said.


Most cases of cankles (swollen ankles) or swollen hands are benign and can be managed with a few lifestyle modifications. That said, make sure you discuss your symptoms with your doctor, particularly if you are pregnant. Call your doctor right away if you have pain, redness or heat near the swollen area and shortness of breath.

To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit

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