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Edema: Swelling During Pregnancy

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Slight swelling in various parts of the body is a very normal occurrence of pregnancy.  Although more prevalent during the third trimester, edema can occur at any time throughout pregnancy.

What causes edema?

During pregnancy, the amount of fluids (mostly blood) in a woman’s body nearly double to support the proper development of the baby and make the body more flexible expand with the baby’s growth.  Pregnant women usually experience swelling in the extremities, such as the feet, legs, hands, fingers and the face. 

In addition to the large increase in body fluids, edema in the legs or feet in the third trimester may also be caused by the growing uterus pressing on the pelvic veins and thus slightly obstructing blood flow.  Sitting or standing for a long period of time likewise puts pressure on the veins and may contribute to swelling.

What are the dangers

Edema is a normal condition of pregnancy.  However, if you experience sudden and extreme swelling you may have early symptoms of preeclampsia, which is a serious condition of pregnancy-related high blood pressure.  If you experience sudden swelling, headaches, a blurred vision, disorientation or dizziness, or severe abdominal pain, contact your health care practitioner immediately.

Edema is usually present symmetrically in the body.  If you find that one of your feet or another area of the body is swelling more than the other, contact your health care provider right away as this may signal a problem with the blood vessels.

Finding relief

Doctors recommend the following methods to lessen swelling:

Drink plenty of water. If you do not drink enough, the body may react by storing more water and thereby worsening swelling.
Sleep on your left side to improve blood circulation.
Keep your feet elevated when lying down or sitting to put less stress on the veins.  Do not cross your legs. 
Exercise – a gentle aerobic workout such as walking is best.
Try not to sit or stand for a long time, as this causes fluids to collect in the lower parts of the body such as the legs and feet.  If you are in a situation where this is unavoidable, try taking breaks to walk around.  Move your feet in circular movements a few times to further increase circulation.
Avoid heat, especially in the mid-day.  Many women experience a worsening of edema during the hot summer months.
Avoid wearing high heels and shoes that are too tight.
Avoid consuming excess salt.  It is not recommended to cut out salt from your diet during pregnancy, but if you suffer from edema try to avoid excess amounts in the diet.
Tight clothing that obstructs blood flow in the arms, legs or any other parts of the body should be avoided.  Make sure your socks are not too snug around the ankles.

How long does it last?

Remember, slight swelling is a normal condition of pregnancy.  The good news is that it will go away.  The swelling usually subsides by two weeks after giving birth. This relatively quick drop in body fluids is typically experienced as increased sweating and urination in the days and weeks following delivery.

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