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Pregnancy and Swollen Extremities

Pregnancy brings a variety of changes in a woman's body. One of the most common is "edema," the medical term for excess fluid collecting in the body's tissues and causing swelling. It's most often noticed in the legs and feet, especially when ankles and toes begin to swell.

Some swelling of the legs, hands and even the face during pregnancy is a very normal, though often annoying, occurrence. While there are a number of things that can be done to minimize the condition, it's also important to be aware that some cases of excessive or sudden swelling may result from more severe problems that should be discussed with a doctor.

Why Swelling Occurs During Pregnancy

One reason for swelling of the extremities during pregnancy is the changes in blood chemistry that occur in a pregnant woman. Coupled with the normal tendency of pregnant women to retain water, these blood chemistry changes sometimes cause bodily fluids to shift into and collect in the body's tissues.

This excess fluid is most noticed in the legs, feet and hands, since these are the parts of the body furthest removed from the pumping action of the heart. In addition, the effect of gravity also makes it easier for fluids to collect in the legs, ankles and feet.

Another contributing factor is the extra pressure that a growing uterus places upon the veins that run through the pelvis. That pressure can slow the circulation of blood in the legs, making it easier for blood to pool there and for fluid from the veins to be forced into the tissues of the feet and ankles.

The pressure from the expanding uterus often effects the vena cava, the large vein on the right side of the body that is the main path for the blood from the legs on its journey back to the heart. One way to relieve this pressure on this major vein is for the pregnant woman to lie on her side, especially her left side, since that removes the pressure on the vena cava.

Should Leg Swelling Be a Source of Concern?

As noted above, swelling of the extremities is a fairly common condition during pregnancy. While it certainly should be discussed with one's physician, in most cases taking a few simple steps can help minimize the condition and reduce any problems it may be causing.

However, there are times when swelling can indicate a more serious problem:

  • Raise your feet whenever possible. If at work, use a stool or pile of books when sitting to elevate your feet.
  • one leg being significantly more swollen than the other
  • excessive swelling of one leg accompanied by pain or tenderness in the calf or thigh

Any of these conditions require an immediate call to a doctor or clinic for an evaluation of the problem.

Steps To Minimize Swelling Of The Legs And Feet

Often the major problem of edema is that the swelling makes an already uncomfortable pregnant woman feel even larger, more uncomfortable and more ungainly. This is especially true since most such swelling occurs in the third trimester, often is most noticeable late in the day when she is more tired, and is more common during the heat of summer.

There are a variety of things a woman can do to both minimize the amount of swelling that takes place, and to minimize any discomfort swelling might bring:

    • Raise your feet whenever possible. If at work, use a stool or pile of books when sitting to elevate your feet.
    • Don't cross your legs when sitting. Crossed legs put additional pressure on veins and help limit circulation.
    • When sitting, exercise your feet. Stretch out your leg, heel first, and gently flex your foot to help stretch the calf muscles. Wiggle your toes and lift your foot and rotate your foot at the ankle.
    • Don't sit for too long. Take frequent breaks to stand and go for a short walk to help keep the blood circulating.
    • Get regular exercise, such as walking, swimming or riding an exercise bike, that will help keep your leg muscles in tone and help improve circulation.
    • Choose comfortable shoes that will accommodate moderate swelling of your feet, and avoid socks or stockings with top bands that press tightly on your ankles or calves.
    • Drink lots of water, eat nutritious foods and avoid salty, sugary junk foods.
    • Wear waist-high maternity support stockings. These specially designed hosiery provide graduated support from the ankle upward that both aids circulation and limits fluid retention in the tissue of the legs. Putting them on first thing in the morning helps prevent blood from pooling in the legs and ankles.

While swelling of the legs and feet during pregnancy can be bothersome, it is seldom a serious problem. The main thing to remember is that this is a temporary condition and that this swelling will be gone very soon after giving birth.

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